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Introduction To Lent And Its Significance

Lent is a period of forty days (from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday), in which the duration of daylight increases in the Northern Hemisphere. Christians use this period to ponder over the sufferings, sin-atoning and representative death (Galatians 1:4), burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some Christians fast; others abstain from comfort foods and bodily pleasures; some Christians do penance by expressing their deepest sorrow over their past sin; some Christians resolve to lead a simple lifestyle that overcomes the temptations from three sources, namely the ‘devil’, the insatiable desires of their human nature, and the unhealthy allurements of the material world. The devil (< Greek: diabolos, ‘the one who throws a ball hither and thither and thus causes confusion’, a slanderer or an accuser or a liar) remains the archenemy of God, who confuses God’s people and seeks hard to bring them away from God’s redemptive plan for humans.

The Spiritual Battle

Secondly, the Hebrew word bāzār (‘flesh’ as in Genesis 6:12) and the Greek word sarx (‘the sinful nature’ as in 2 Peter 2:11) convey the idea the fallen nature within Christians struggles against the wholesome nature within them (Romans 7:18–20). Thirdly, the material world tempts all peoples, including Christians. It entices them to ceaselessly work toward acquiring more immovable properties (like land and house) and more movable properties (like money, gold, and social standing). This material pursuit often abuses fellow human beings either robbing their resources or denying them opportunities to flourish in life. Christians oppose these three temptations and contribute to a world that is more humane, peaceful, and eco-friendly for all people.

From Ash Wednesday To Easter

Christians end their Lenten observance either on the evening of the Holy Thursday or on the Easter Day. From Holy Thursday to the beginning of Easter they particularly remember the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, his burial and his resurrection. Thus, Lent prepares Christians to celebrate Easter in a worthy manner. 

The period of Lent and the cross are inseparable. Nowadays, the word cross possesses nuanced meanings: the active verb to cross refers to passing through, by, or over from one place to another. The Hebrew verb āvar (‘to cross’ as in Genesis 31:21) or the Greek verbs diabainō (‘to cross across’, as in Luke 16:26, Acts 16:9 and Hebrews 11:29) and diaperaō (Matthew 9:1 and 14:34, Mark 5:21 and 6:53, Luke 16:26 and Acts 21:2) refer to crossing from one place to another. Additionally, the active verb ‘to cross’ can mean suddenly remembering something (e.g., it crossed my mind), or cancelling something (e.g., crossing a cheque), or opposing someone or an opinion (e.g., the employees did not wish to cross their employer), or wishing a good luck to someone (e.g., I crossed my finger for you.) or breeding plants and animals or meeting someone unexpectedly (e.g., our paths crossed). 

The Multifaceted Symbolism Of The Cross

Christians are more concerned with the material, spiritual, and figurative meanings of the noun cross: materially, a cross (Latin: crux; Greek: stauros) represents to them the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was nailed to a cross according to the first century Roman custom of executing criminals in public places. Thus, the cross symbolises human selfishness, cruelty, fragility, death, and shame. Spiritually, the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ on the Easter Sunday transformed the cross into a sign of Christ’s victory over death, vindication of God’s justice in atoning for human sin and trespasses, and God’s forgiveness for repentant sinner. The cross of Christ changes human frailty and vulnerability into human strength and resilience. 

Figuratively, the noun cross means three interrelated aspects: firstly, the vertical beam in a cross reminds Christians of their relationship with God. Simultaneously, the horizontal beam in a cross enables the Christians to cooperate with their fellow human beings in making their society more human. The cross accommodates contradictions and verities, which normally bring people apart. The cross is the best symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Secondly, the figurative meaning of the cross stands for the enduring, and sometimes insolvable afflictions that can have numerous forms and causes. The cross of Christ provides them the necessary strength and hope, not to perceive these sufferings as God’s punishment; instead, the cross helps them to actively seek solutions. Until they find the solutions, they can bear them with God’s help. Undeserved suffering, imposed on them by causes beyond their control, poses great difficulty. For example, wars leave behind innocent victims; epidemics and natural catastrophes cause indescribable suffering for countless people. In such contexts, the suffering itself becomes their cross.

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The Cross In Christian Tradition And Worship

Thirdly, the cross remains the most used symbol for Christianity: currently, all Christians belonging to 49,100 documented denominations have some forms of the cross as their symbol. Soon after Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the state religion, the cross-emblem became prominent. Some crosses are a topless ‘T’ (showing the Greek letter ‘Tau’). The Latin-crosses are of unequal arms like a ‘sword’ upside down. It means that is no longer an instrument of death, killing, and shame; instead, the cross symbolises new life, peace, and reconciliation. One might see such crosses on top of church buildings, hills, and other prominent places in those countries, where until mid-20th century the greatest number of Christians lived. The current secularised conditions of these countries have no place for the crosses and interpret them as symbols of intolerance and violence. By contrast, most Christians in the sub-Saharan Africa, in Latin America, and certain parts of Asia hold the symbol of cross still high. The arms in the crosses of the Orthodox Churches are of equal length. No church tradition encourages the veneration of the cross; yet, in places where people pay their homage to images of goddesses and gods, the cross has become an object of veneration. It is like an icon; it represents to the venerators the mystery of God’s love, holiness, justice, and peace. These attributes spring forth from the cross. 

The Influence On Worship And Devotion

All four Gospels of the New Testament describe the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ in a greater depth than his life, teaching, and work. These passion narratives have inspired Christians in every human context to compose hymns and lyrics on the cross. English hymns such as Amazing Grace, At the Cross, Rock of Ages, The Old Rugged Cross, Because He lives, To God be the glory, When I survey the wonderous cross, and the like have been the source of comport and inspiration for countless Christians in the English-speaking world and beyond. Countless Christian groups enact the passion narrative and carry the cross. Some even go to the most terrible practice of nailing their hands and legs on wooden crosses. The Lenten Period is the time to meditate on the sufferings of the Lord Jesus. Seen from the perspective of Christ’s resurrection, no nailing is necessary and it should be prohibited. 

The Cross In Indigenous Christian Contexts

In southern India, the Mar Thomas Crosses (also called the Persian Crosses, e.g., in the church of Our Lady of Expectation on the Little Mount in modern Chennai, St. George Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Kadamattom in modern Ernakulam in Kerala, and the like) depict indigenised Christianity. The cross stands on a lotus flower. The three upper arms of the cross are equal; each arm has three edges and indicate the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends on the top-middle arm. South Indian Christians have not yet found an indigenous word for the cross. Most of them are satisfied with the Indianized Portuguese noun crus, namely kurusu. Tamil Christians call the cross ciluvai; the Malayalee Christians call it sileeva. The etymological root of ciluvai is debated. Probably, it indicates the impossibly of domesticating the cross in human society. The cross can stand within it as its crux, yet, it will point out the unjust and evil aspects of that society. It will work toward renewing the society in such a way that all members of the society can live there peacefully. The judging cross also becomes the reconciling and healing cross. 


Galatians 6:14 expresses the inseparable relationship between Lent and the cross as follows: Apostle Paul decided to boast “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (ESV).

Prof. Dr. Daniel Jeyaraj is an accomplished church historian and currently serves as the Academic Dean at Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life.