Friday, August 8, 2008


I was always of a mind that less is more in lent and so always strove to un-decorate during this season. Almost every place I have been has had the opposite opinion however. There are always decorations for lent albeit “lenty” decorations. There are the traditional thorn bushes, seemingly dead grape vines, and leafless twigs in bud. The bulrush represents the humble multitude of the Church. The apple is the symbol of the Fall and of man’s sinful nature which is in need of healing. The violet is the symbol of humility and its color is also apropos for lent.

The passion flower has made its way into art more recently but is not really available on the market. The reason that it is called the passion flower is that with a little imagination one can make out the artifacts of the crucifixion.

The cockle, because it invades fields and chokes off desired crops is associated with sin and sinners invading the Church as in Christ’s parables. Another weed, the dandelion is considered one of the bitter herbs and thus a symbol of Christ’s Passion. The reed should be fairly obvious as it was used to lift the sponge soaked in vinegar to Christ’s lips as He hung upon the Cross. The thistle can be added to this list as a symbol of sin (from Genesis as part of Adam’s curse as the ground would bring forth thistle) and because of its thorns, reminiscent of the crown of thorns.

“Life has always poppies in her hands,” or so it says in the book, “The Portrait of Dorian Grey”. Dorothy almost never returned home because of the poisoned poppies that caused her to fall asleep. Because of their red color they are also used in depictions of the Passion but they are also, symbols of sleep, fertility (interesting combination), ignorance, extravagance, and indifference.

Pansies are a symbol of mediation and remembrance and have traditionally (in art) been a particular symbol for lent. I think an attempt to use them on the altar without deep catechesis could be mighty confusing.

There are two stories about the aspen tree. You might notice that its leaves seem to shake in the summer breeze and legend says that when the aspen learned that it had been chosen to be the tree out of which the Cross was to be made it shook in horror. The other legend says that when all of the other trees bowed in sorrow at the death of Christ on the Cross the aspen refused out of sinful arrogance and its leaves were doomed to shake and shiver thence forth.

The cypress, reported earlier in the symbolic language as used in our cemeteries, is a symbol of death because of its dark leaves and because once chopped down it never springs up again from its roots. The dogwood was once said to be a massive tree like the oak and was originally chosen to be the wood of the Cross and was horrified. Jesus looked with compassion on the tree and transformed it into a twisted, brittle shrub so that it could never be used for such a purpose. Hence the flowers of the dogwood resemble a cross (four petals long and two short) each marked with a rusted, blood soaked nail, and crown of thorns at its heart.

During the Renaissance holly was often used in representations of the Passion though we would find it odd now I suppose since it is so intimately associated with Christmas. As all of the other trees shattered themselves as the axe was brought down on them so that they could not be used as lumber for the Cross, the proud holly would not so defame itself. As a result it is now a twisted shrub, humbled for daring to be so prideful before its maker. The prickly leaves were associated with sin and the red berries with Christ’s blood.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm amazed at how rich the symbolism and legends are surrounding plants. It's amazing what people have come up with through observing various plants. I need to be more observant myself! I especially like the story of the dogwood.

Do we know what kind of tree the Cross really was made of?

Rev. Daren J. Zehnle, J.C.L., K.C.H.S. said...

Keep up the good work with these posts, Father!

I'm with you: less is more in Lent. It always seemed strange to me to put more in the sanctuary in Lent than Ordinary Time, which is filled with feasts and solemnities.