Decorating the Altar and Sanctuary for Lent and Easter
Where to Start?
When thinking about how to decorate the church for the seasons of Lent and Easter the motivation is to provide a visual representation of the contemplative, introspective time of Lent and transitioning the imagery used into the joyous Easter themes of forgiveness, rebirth, and love. Lent is the period on the church calendar between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is a time for reflection and contemplation as the church prepares for the festive remembrance of Christ's resurrection. If your church follows the liturgical calendar, you may wish to create a visual reinforcement for the events taking place during Lent and Easter. This article will show the approach we at our church took to make this visual transition happen.
The main question to resolve is how to make the images and materials used to decorate the church transition from the of solemnity and introspective spirit of the Lenten season to the joyous trappings of Easter.
Sticks, Sticks, and More Sticks
During the season of lent, the believer is led to a time of contemplation of his/her relationship to God, focusing on what distances us from His blessings and love. Naturally, an awareness of our shortcomings, failures, and sin come to the fore.
Our challenge in the liturgical art group was to find a visual representation for these concepts. We arrived at using sticks - a ubiquitous item, but one that brings up connotations of dryness, brokenness, and death. We thought that painting the sticks black would further emphasize the concepts we wished to illustrate. Our plan came to be to display our black painted sticks in bundles (perhaps representing our burdens in life) around the church during Lent, having the amount of sticks grow with each successive week.
As a way to involve the congregation, we invited people to bring sticks from home (maybe the result of some spring landscape work). Our group would take these donated sticks, paint them black (we used spray paint), and add them to our display.
How do you prefer to celebrate Easter?
The message of Easter is the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and His resurrection. Therefore, our thought process about this display necessarily centered on the cross. We decided that a representation of Christ's crucifixion on Good Friday had to focus on the cross. We also liked the idea of using the Lenten sticks to bring this period to its culmination, so we decided to cover this cross with the black sticks.
To this end, we used a wooden cross which one of our members covered with chicken wire. This provided us with a base onto which we could attach the sticks. The sticks were attached to the cross with florist's wire.
Our original plan was to unveil the stick-covered cross on Good Friday, in keeping with the chronology of the Passion story. However, the cross (even as it was being slowly covered in sticks) made such a stark and compelling image, we decided to display it from the beginning of Lent. As we progressed through Lent, sticks were gradually added to the cross until it was entirely covered. This was a tangible representation of Christ taking on our sin, our burdens, our suffering.
The Cross of Sticks
Of course, we couldn't stop with just this stark Lenten cross, because there is more to the story. We had to think of a way to represent the wonderful gift we are given through Christ's death and resurrection. We needed some type of image that would embody the joy, release, and rebirth we experience at Easter. We decided on butterflies because of their colorful, springtime appearance and because of their life cycle. As we all know, butterflies begin life as caterpillars and then enter into a dormant state in the cocoon (which could illustrate the season of Lent). Once this dormant period is over (Christ's three days after His death), the butterfly arises to a new and transformed life.
We decided to transform our dark, burden laden cross into one covered in beautiful butterflies. This would illustrate how our sins are transformed, covered, and forgiven through Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
We enlisted the help of our Sunday school students to create a multitude of brightly colored tissue paper butterflies (these type projects abound on the internet), which we would use to cover the cross. These wonderful butterflies were hot glued to the sticks on the cross.
As you can see, the results were beautiful! The transformed cross became a metaphor for the change in our lives when we accept the redeeming gift Christ gave us on the cross.
Words of Explanation
Your church may want you to write a brief explanation of your thought processes and methods for your display in the church bulletin or newsletter. This may help your fellow worshipers better understand the intent of your display.
Here's what I said for this project:
"I will never look at sticks in quite the same way again. Over this past Lenten season, sticks came to represent more than what they ever had before. As we gathered, bundled, and painted sticks black, they came to symbolize much more than their humble appearance might suggest. Sticks are not easy to work with - they are brittle, dry, unyielding, stubborn, and rigid - prone to breaking under the slightest pressure. As we considered these sticks as a metaphor for our Lenten contemplation, the sticks became symbols for our failures, our shortcomings, our pain. But we brought them to the cross, and that's what makes all the difference.
Now there are butterflies - symbols for love, forgiveness, rebirth, purity - grace. We live a lifetime and never fully understand these truths in human terms; much less on God's scale.
I want to thank the Trinity Liturgical Art group for their generous gifts of time and talent. I also want to thank Pennie S, Laurie J, and the Sunday school students for all of the beautiful butterflies. A special thank you goes to my son, Davis, for his invaluable help in building the cross of sticks.
Symbols, metaphors, and parables don't come close to explaining the immense magnitude of God's love, but they give us a place to start. Happy Easter!"
Taking on a project like this is a commitment of time and effort. It takes several people to complete all the tasks required to make this transformation of a worship place. Getting all of the steps done at the right time requires good communication between team members and a careful coordination of people and efforts.
I know some people would question the benefit of this type of effort, especially when considering the relatively short duration of such a display. The members of our liturgical art team would disagree with this notion. We consider it a privilege to serve our church in this way - it is a gift offered in love, and there's no way to attach a price tag to something like that.
I hope you will consider taking on a project like this for your church. The details of such a display can be worked out by you and the team you form. The rewards of sharing a loving task like this are immense, and I know you will find it worthwhile.