Paschal Cycle

A Paschal Environment - Part 1

February 03, 2009


treeAs I walked through the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis one winter, the trees were bare and I could see more of the gardens than usual between the unadorned branches. Despite the starkness of my surroundings, I knew that spring would bring blossoming tulip trees, flowering crabs, dogwood, and floral artistry tenfold. However, in that moment; any future reality was quite dead to my sight. Thus is the pattern of the Paschal Season; death to resurrection, Lent through Triduum and Easter, until Pentecost.

How can this visual and visceral experience penetrate our prayer and worship during Lent, so that the glory of Easter and the full rhythm of Paschal Season is upheld?

» As with all liturgical seasons, it is essential to know the reality of the mystery we seek to convey.

»  It is vital to follow the fundamental patterns of progressive solemnity, so that the décor of the worship space supports and strengthens the essence of the liturgy and the theological understanding of the liturgical season.

» It is important to work with those who understand, not only the context of the liturgical season, but also the beauty of artistry. Aesthetics transcend literal interpretation.

What is the Paschal Season?

CrucifixionPasch, refers to the passing over from death to life. For the Hebrew people, this was the remembrance of Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover, where God passed over Egypt, saving those whose houses were marked by the blood of the lamb. For Christians, this event commemorates the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus, his passage from death to life, and ultimately our own passage into eternal life.

The Paschal Season celebrates the central mystery of our faith, Christ’s death, and resurrection. The whole of this season includes:

» The Season of Lent and the celebration of the Triduum. This three-day feast is ushered in with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, continues through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, to find it’s culmination in the Easter Vigil, and concludes on Easter Sunday.

» The seven weeks of the Easter Season.

» The Feast of Pentecost.

Rather than celebrate each of these sections of the Liturgical Year as a separate reality, it is helpful to understand them as one complete 90-Day Paschal Season with varying emphasis:

» During the 40 days of Lent, we reflect on our life with Christ and prepare to renew our baptismal vows.

» During the 50 days of Easter, we profess and renew our faith and witness.

» During all of these weeks, we support the Elect as they ready themselves to be baptized, and celebrate their transformed presence as neophytes throughout the Easter Season.

Progressive Solemnity

ProcessionProgressive solemnity is found in our daily lives and embodied in all that we celebrate. Domestic applications might include dressing up for Sunday and dressing down for gardening, using cloth napkins for a formal occasion and paper napkins at a picnic. Progressive solemnity is the progression of how we communicate the solemnness or the importance of an occasion, person, idea, or event.

In the liturgy, progressive solemnity is a movement of simplicity to fullness as expressed in the ritual, music, and seasonal décor. These nuances help convey the Paschal Season and transcend explanations, so that the symbols of our faith communicate the power of their mystery.

Paschal Décor

While the faith symbols of the liturgy remain constant; altar, ambo, font, and cross, the Paschal Season focuses particularly on the cross during Lent and the font during the Easter Season. Why? Because they are the central symbols of the season. The cross embodies discipleship, while we reflect on how we live as disciples and prepare to renew our baptismal promises. The font is our entry into Christ’s death and resurrection. We celebrate that reality each Easter as we renew our baptismal promises.

Easter DecorIn addition to these central symbols, there is a spiritual understanding to be drawn from the scriptures, such as the prayer and solitude of Jesus as he goes out into the emptiness of the desert and the glory of the resurrection when we envision the joy of Mary and the apostles at the empty tomb. These reflections are to inform our creativity for décor, but they are not to compel us to think about how to recreate a desert in our sanctuary area, ponder how to produce buds from bare branches, or build an actual tomb to image the resurrection. We must help our church interiors and exteriors express the starkness of sin, the emptiness of ashes, the simple dignity of a liturgy that begins the most solemn Triduum on Holy Thursday night, and the brilliance of resurrection. Artists can help translate these understandings into visual experiences that enhance, rather than distract from our worship.

As we think through décor for the Paschal Season, it is important to connect the visual progression of Lent through Triduum, to Easter, in relation to the overall Paschal Season. While each season has its particular character, they are not settings to be staged in and of themselves, but part of a greater story that unfolds over the 90 days. Lent begins the visual landscape for how we establish the priority of our symbol system and the framework for the fullness of Easter.

Some of the foundations in this planning process are as follows:

» Connect Primary Symbols: The primary symbols of altar, ambo, and font should connect aesthetically and visually. These connections, begun in Lent, should then carry to Triduum, Easter and Pentecost. They build on one other, not only in their meaning, but in their aesthetic and visual progression of festivity.

» Connect Secondary Symbols: If you are emphasizing a symbol, such as the cross, the next step is to think through how it will connect throughout the progression of the whole of the Paschal Season. A rough hewn bare cross during Lent can be integrated throughout Triduum, Easter, and Pentecost, but progressive festive adornment may help express the transition from the somberness of Lent, to the jubilance of Easter.

»  Include the Whole Assembly Area & Church Building: In addition to primary and secondary symbols, it is important to attend to the décor of the whole assembly area, ambulatories, and surrounding church spaces, such as the entrances, gathering areas, parking lots, and the outside of the church building. It is even more important to balance these seasonal enhancements with the hierarchy of the symbol already present in the main worship area. Artists can help to design this balance with an overall comprehensive plan that can engage the season, as well as aesthetical senses.

»  Use Appropriate Materials, Scale, and Symbols:

Easter at the Basilica of Saint MaryFabrics should be appropriate to the season. Keep in mind their weight, color, texture, and expressive goals, so that they support the context of the season and primary symbols.

Symbols should be large enough to communicate their meaning and fullness in the size of the space in which they are situated and should express the primary focus of the day or season.

Liturgical décor should always focus on the seasonal, scriptural, and theological themes that are most prolific, rather than one idea or image from a particular Sunday gospel, such as a desert.

Guard Against Literalism

Let the seasonal décor enhance the whole of the season, rather than narrate the theological and scriptural themes of the Sundays.

Avoid the temptation to use literal visual expressions, such as empty fonts, crowns of thorns, nails, etc. when communicating a particular event or idea. Literalism can unintentionally define or limit a prayer experience.

Liturgical décor is to provide an environment that enhances the assembly’s prayer, the season, and the liturgy more fully, rather than narrate the scriptures or particular ideas.


Basilica in LentMardi Gras can offer a pattern for preparing décor for Lent with its tradition of clearing out all but the plainest of food on the eve of Ash Wednesday. Our churches should emulate this process as we clear away all that might spiritually distract us on our journey of faith.

» In the worship space, we diminish visual distractions in order to emphasize the central symbols of the Lent, such as the cross.

» As our faith bids us to see resurrection beyond emptiness, our churches can focus our minds on the penitential elements of the season to prepare us to renew our baptismal vows.

» Color, texture, fabric, light, darkness, and natural materials can guide our prayer as the essence of the season seeps into the choices we make for these elements.

» Violet is the designated liturgical color for Lent, however careful use of traditional penitential red purple, colors of ash, black and gray, and textures that embrace the scarred nature of sin can also invite reflection and conversion.

» Again, the weight of the fabric must support this contemplation. It is not enough to have just any purple fabric; the fabric must communicate the depth, fullness, and essence of Lent in thought and spirit.

Some churches participate in an older custom of covering all statues or other images, in order to focus more completely on the cross and penitential prayer. This is not a requirement, but it is permitted in the United States. Crosses may be covered from the conclusion of the Mass for Saturday for the Fourth Sunday of Lent until the end of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday. Images may be covered from the conclusion of the Mass for the Saturday for the Fourth Sunday of Lent until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

Continue to Part 2 of this article for a discussion of Holy Week and the Easter Season.

Denise L. Anderson is a liturgical consultant and writer who lives in St. Paul, MN and worships at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. She holds an M.A. in Liturgical Studies from The University of Notre Dame.

Photo of tree by Dan Miller; Photos of Basilica of Saint Mary by Mike Jensen.


A Paschal Environment - Part 2
Color Psychology & Liturgical Space
Liturgical Decor...Most Holy Trinity & the Body and Blood of Christ
Ordinary Time Decor: Part 1 and Part 2

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