On the first Sunday of Lent I attended Mass at the local Carmelite monastery rather than at my parish church, so this past Sunday was the first time I had seen my parish church transformed for Lent. As I looked about the sanctuary, I sighed.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:
During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), solemnities, and feasts (GIRM 305).
Per the GIRM, there were no flowers on the altar. In years past, this parish has taken this dictum so far as to forbid parishioners to place flowers at the base of statues placed at various points around the church. What was in the altar area was what made me sigh: clay pots stuffed with purple cloths and dead branches. I suppose I should be thankful that the holy water fonts still had water in them, instead of being replaced with sand, as is known to occur at some Catholic parishes during Lent.
While an argument could be made that the dead branches and other desert-like accoutrements were intended to invoke the penitential experience of Lent—and indeed, to be fair, there is nothing necessarily wrong with the evocation of a desert in Lent—I think the liturgical fad of strewing sand, tumbleweeds, and dead branches in church sanctuaries misunderstands what a desert is and why it is a metaphor for Lent.
Deserts are geographical regions that have a moisture deficit. They lose more moisture than they receive. But that doesn't mean that the plant life there is dead. In fact, many of the flowers and plants in deserts are known for storing water or for having deep roots that tap into underground water supplies. Water loss is prevented through thick waxy coats on the leaves. There also tends to be a high salt content in deserts.
In the Christian spiritual life, water is a symbol for grace. It is the matter for baptism, which washes us clean of original sin. The spiritual masters, such as St. Teresa of Avila, often use water as a metaphor for the action of grace in the soul. As for salt, in the ancient world it was used both for preserving food and for seasoning it. When Christ calls upon Christians to be the salt of the earth (cf. Matt. 5:13), he is calling upon his followers to both preserve what he gives them and to make it appetizing for a starving world.
If we apply these themes to Lent, then decorating sanctuaries with dead plants and replacing the water with sand is precisely the opposite of what we are to experience in Lent. Rather than do without grace, we are supposed to soak it up—through prayer, abstinence, sacrifices, sacramentals, the sacraments (especially confession)—to store it in abundance for the leaner times to come. Rather than do without flowers, we are supposed to be what blooms in Lent, tapping into the supplies of grace the Church provides for spiritual survival. While the Church asks that altars not be decorated with flowers during Lent, I think it's a mistake for parishes to forbid parishioners to bring flowers as offerings to be placed at the bases of church statues. It would be especially nice to encourage that the flowers and plants brought be the succulents that grow in deserts.
But we don't soak up grace in order to hoard it. It is meant not just for us, but also for the world. And so, like the salt that preserves and seasons, we focus during Lent on preserving Christian truth and passing it on to future generations. If you are looking for a specific project this Lent that will enable you to preserve Christian truth and witness to the world the message of Christ, here's one idea:
On March 26, Tuesday of Holy Week, the United States Supreme Court will be hearing arguments aimed at overturning Proposition 8, California's referendum that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. On that same day, the National Organization for Marriage will be one of many groups sponsoring a March for Marriage in Washington, D.C., in front of the Supreme Court. It will be a time when Christians must defend the nature of true marriage as a heritage given by God and witness to the world the sanctity of the traditional family.
If you can be in Washington, D.C., on that date, participating in the March for Marriage would be a wonderful way to preserve and to season. But, if not, then perhaps you might use this Lent to gather up graces through prayer and sacrifices that can be offered for the intentions of those who will march.
Lent is not a season of spiritual death or spiritual aridity. It is a time to access the various means of grace Christ gives us through his Church so that we might live and bloom for God.