Symbols in Lent and Easter

Fleur Dorrell explores key symbols and their meanings in our Lent and Easter readings, worship and rituals.

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Symbols are important to us because they help us make sense of the world. Christian symbols create connections between the ordinary and the transcendent, the particular and the universal, the present moment and eternity. These symbols have the power to transform us and our understanding of Jesus – his life, death and resurrection. When we remember these symbols each year in our rituals and liturgies they reinforce our faith as individual believers and as the whole body of the Church.

Our liturgical year focuses on the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, the 40 days of preparation of Lent and the 50 days of fulfilment leading to Pentecost. It explores and mediates religious meaning to us through symbols which emerged in the very early celebration of Baptism and Eucharist and the prayers and actions used within them.

Year by year we engage with these same symbols and their meanings from different angles – but now seen from the changed perspectives of our own times, in which they are capable of opening up different dimensions of life, so in the one faith community transformation and conversion are always possible. The key symbols that we repeatedly use are water, wine, oil, light and fire, touch and laying on of hands or for blessing, and the physical and visual body of Christ within the physical body of our gatherings.

The symbols of change and renewal

The Catechism says that all the other feasts and sacred mysteries point towards Easter – which stands at the centre of the Gospel. The English feast of Easter comes from the pagan German spring festival, so it is the Greek root of ‘Paschal’, which connects it to the Jewish Passover. In Exodus 12, the Israelites marked their door frames with the blood of the sacrificed lamb, and God passed them by striking the homes of their oppressors and delivering his people to freedom. At Easter the whole people of God, and often their homes, are sprinkled with the newly blessed baptismal water symbolising our liberation from lives oppressed in various ways to a new life of freedom as the baptised children of God.

So, each Lent, we return to fundamental events, stories and encounters which invite us to reflect on our current reality. We discover levels of meaning that we may have forgotten or have never seen before. The symbols of Lent and Easter challenge us to conversion and change. By engaging anew with the core symbols of our faith, we hear God again calling us to freedom and liberation at this time in our lives.

As we return year by year, to the same stories and texts, the community we read them in is also different. Some have died, others have been born literally or sacramentally. We are in a different place, emotionally, intellectually, socially and maybe economically. Yet every year the texts have a capacity to reveal aspects of ourselves and our world that we have not seen before and which invite a new response. This is the real challenge of Lent and the potential resurrection of Easter. The symbols of Lent and Easter always open us to hope. Every Lent we are offered the space to rise to lives redeemed and renewed.

As with the Hebrews in the desert, the journey is rarely straightforward – so much has to be left behind in order to accept the gift still promised. In the life of faith, the fullness that is promised is not a return to some past possession, or purer re-statement of some dogmatic understanding, which inevitably excludes someone somewhere. It is the stepping into a new horizon of possibility, already there in the symbols of salvation – the waters of baptism, the shared table of the Lord, the Kingdom of God, and the revelation of God as Abba.

The symbol of ashes

There are many references to ashes in the Old Testament which reflect a sense of humility and repentance. Here are some key ones:

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”Genesis 3:19

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry.Esther 4:1

Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.Daniel 9:3

The Maccabees brothers and Job also turn to God, praying and begging for mercy with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.1 Maccabees 3:37 and Job 42:6

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.Jonah 3:3-6

Jesus challenges the people in Matthew’s Gospel:

21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.Matthew 11:21

The use of ashes was adapted to mark the beginning of Lent and developed from a ritual found in the 8th-century Gregorian Sacramentary. Since the Middle Ages the Church has burnt the palms from the previous Palm Sunday and used ashes to mark our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. We are reminded of our mortality and challenged to repent and live better lives.

The symbol of 40 days

The earliest reference is at the Council of Nice in AD 325. The preparation for Easter was to be 40 days in imitation of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for his public ministry:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was famished. Matthew 4:1-2

In the Old Testament, the number 40 symbolises tests and trials. In Genesis we read that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights during the time Noah was in the Ark. Moses lived in Egypt for 40 years, in Midian 40 years, and served God for 40 years. The Hebrew people spent 40 years in the wilderness before being delivered from slavery.

The symbol of the word ‘Lent’

The English word ‘Lent’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon meaning to ‘lengthen’. Lent comes at a time when the hours or daytime are beginning to ‘lengthen’, as spring approaches, and so it is a time when we can ‘lengthen’ spiritually, stretch out and grow in the Spirit (like a cat in the sun).  Just as the sun was thought to do the work of ‘lengthening’ the days during early springtime, so God’s own son, the light of the world, enlightens his Church. Our role, then, is to respond to the light of Jesus’ words and acts and grow in his gracious life.

Scripture and the early Church suggested a variety of ways in which this ‘lengthening’ might come about. While ashes and fasting are part of the spiritual journey, Lent is also a joyful season. The first Preface for the Mass in Lent makes the point very elegantly:

Each year you give us this joyful season
when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery
with mind and heart renewed.
You give us a spirit of loving reverence for you, our Father,
and of willing service to our neighbour.
As we recall the great events that gave us a new life in Christ,
you bring to perfection within us the image of your Son.

Between the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65, there were a variety of developments in the way Christians observed Lent, but early on, the last week of Lent – ‘Holy Week’ – became distinct and focused on Christ’s last days on earth and his resurrection. This tied in with the chronology suggested by the gospel writers.

The earlier part of Lent sought to re-live Christ’s 40 days in the desert, giving us plenty of time for quiet, prayer and purification. The psalms and the scripture readings which make up the main Lectionary for Lent focus on rich symbols and ideas about creation, the fall, redemption, physical and spiritual healing, covenant and sacrifice, and then during Holy Week they follow Jesus’ mission as presented in the gospels and other Old Testament parallels such as the four ‘Songs of the Suffering Servant’ from the book of Isaiah (42:1-9, 49:1-7, 50:4-9 and 52:13-53:12).

St John Cassian in the 5th century describes Lent as the ‘tithes of the year’ – as Lent is roughly a tenth of the days in a whole year, so we give those days as an offering or tithe to God, and imitate the fast that Jesus did, as did Moses and Elijah.

The symbols of water and light

Water and light are two significant symbols in Scripture and in our liturgies and sacraments throughout the year, but are of particular significance during this season.


In the Easter rite, water is present in a number of symbolic ways – through creation, the flood, the womb, cleansing, refreshment, deliverance in the crossing of the Red Sea to freedom, and of Jesus being baptised in the Jordan. Water is so important in Scripture that it is mentioned 722 times in the Bible. Here are some key episodes:

Water is the primordial element of life in Genesis 1.

In the story of Noah’s Ark, water surrounds the boat, but because of the flood, just eight people are saved, yet deliverance from the flood leads to new life and a renewed world in Genesis 6-9.

The Israelites cross the Red Sea to deliverance in Exodus 14-15.
The water from the rock and the manna given by God through Moses in the desert keep the Israelites satisfied in Exodus 17. The manna symbolises the free food Jesus will provide the crowds in the desert with the free ‘food’ of the Eucharist in his Church.
Jesus performs miracles at the lakes of Galilee and Gennesaret in Matthew 8-9,14-15,17; Mark 4-7;  Luke 5, 8 and John 6.
Jesus turns water into wine at the marriage feast in Cana in John 2.

Bethesda and the Pool of Siloam are known for their healing waters in John 5 and 9.

John baptises people in the Jordan including Jesus in Matthew 3; Mark 1 and Luke 3.
Jesus explains the difference between being born of water and of the spirit to Nicodemus in John 3.
Jesus explains to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well the difference between real spiritual thirst as opposed to physical thirst in John 4.

Before the Last Supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet with water in John 13.

Water and blood appear from Jesus’ side on the cross when he is lanced in John 19. The early Christians saw these as symbols of the water of baptism and new life, and in the wine of celebration of the Eucharist where we share his life.
In Revelation 22:1 the writer is shown the waters of life, the river image flowing from the Lamb of God.

Water is an essential sacramental element of both Baptism and the Eucharist.


In Genesis 1, the very beginning of creation starts in the dark and then God immediately invents the light. This creative idea is expressed in the Nicene Creed as ‘… God from God, Light from Light…’. Next, God separates light from dark, day from night, sun from moon, heaven from earth. Creation involves bringing order out of chaos. Whether through the changing seasons, natural events or through metaphors and miracles, there are numerous references to light and dark in the Bible. Jesus becomes the light itself in John 8:12 – 12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Whether it’s the light of faith that sees life differently or the word of God itself that is a lamp to my feet in Psalm 119, the multiple images of light in Scripture provide us with a cosmic symbol of our faith. We can see God and the world with our hearts and not just our eyes.

Significant for Easter is the eclipse that covered the land at the time of Jesus’ death, symbolic of the absence of light without Jesus. (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44).

And then the power of the sunrise as Jesus rose from the dead provided the contrast to the world’s darkness with the light of the resurrection. So in the early church, the Easter Mass could last all night from sunset on the Easter vigil to sunrise on Easter morning.

The absence of light between sunset and sunrise also appears as a period in which to make amends in Ephesians 4:26-27 – “… do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil.”

Light and fire have profound connotations in the Old Testament with the episode of the Burning Bush. Here Moses encounters the presence and call of the God beyond all definition – “I am who I am” who chooses to be with humanity in Exodus 3. While in Exodus 13:21 the fire and the light are navigational tools for the Hebrew people as they leave Egypt – 21 And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. This image of fire and light is used in the Easter liturgy to convey both physical and spiritual symbolism. We are purified with water, illuminated with light from the Paschal candle and unified with God in Jesus as the real and eternal symbol of light and life.

The symbols of different colours

In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III initiated our liturgical colour sequences for all liturgical services throughout the year. So, appropriate colours came to be chosen for the vestments worn by the priests and other celebrants and for the altar fabrics and tabernacle coverings.

During Lent, these colours direct us to their Scriptural and theological roots:

Purple is used during Lent, the colour symbolising penance, hope and royalty and worn by Jesus just before he died in Mark 15:17-20 and John 19:1-3.

is chosen for Good Friday, symbolising Christ’s shedding of blood and his martyrdom. In Matthew 27:28, Jesus wears a scarlet cloak before he is flogged in mocking symbolism of his kingship.

is the colour for Maundy Thursday, for the Easter vigil and Easter itself, celebrating Christ’s triumph over the darkness.

“Christ has turned all our sunsets into dawns.”
Clement of