Decorating the Altar and Sanctuary for Lent and Easter

Updated on March 17, 2020
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I am Diane Brown (dbro), an artist and illustrator living in Texas. I enjoy all phases of the creative process. Enjoy and comment!

stick-covered cross on Good Friday
stick-covered cross on Good Friday

Easter Altar Decoration Ideas

When thinking about how to decorate the church for the seasons of Lent and Easter, you'll want to provide a visual representation of the contemplative, introspective time of Lent and use imagery to transition 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.

The main question to resolve is how to make the images and materials used to decorate the church transition from the solemnity and introspective spirit of the Lenten season to the joyous trappings of Easter.

This article will show you how we used black sticks to decorate the church and cross during lent and how we incorporated tissue-paper butterflies to make the transition to Easter.

Bundled sticks painted black (though they look blue here)
Bundled sticks painted black (though they look blue here)

How to Decorate Your Cross for Lent

During the season of Lent, we are led to a time of contemplation of our relationship to God, focusing on what distances us from His blessings and love. Naturally, an awareness of our shortcomings, failures, and sin comes to the fore.

Our challenge in the liturgical art group was to find a visual representation of these concepts.

  • We decided to use sticks, a ubiquitous item 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.
  • We then decided to display our black painted sticks in bundles (perhaps representing our burdens in life) around the church during Lent, having the number 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.

adding sticks to the cross
adding sticks to the cross

Continue Adding Black Sticks Throughout Lent

The message of Easter is the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and His resurrection. Therefore, our focus 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 that 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.

When to Display this Cross

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, and our suffering.

Here is our cross covered in black sticks.
Here is our cross covered in black sticks.
Click thumbnail to view full-size
It took buckets of butterflies to cover the cross.Gluing the butterflies to the cross.
It took buckets of butterflies to cover the cross.
It took buckets of butterflies to cover the cross.
Gluing the butterflies to the cross.
Gluing the butterflies to the cross.

How to Turn Your Lent Cross Into an Easter Cross

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.

DIY Tissue-Paper Butterflies

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 (they are easy to make), 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.

The cross decorated for Easter using tissue-paper butterflies.
The cross decorated for Easter using tissue-paper butterflies.

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 them 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, rigid, and 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, and 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, and 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!"

Easter Morning!
Easter Morning!

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. Getting all of the steps done at the right time requires good communication between team members and 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.

How do you prefer to celebrate Easter?

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