This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 21, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
More and more, it seems our lives are color-coded, both in the secular world and in the Church. You can see this right after Halloween, when the retail stores begin replacing orange and black items and décor with green and red. And in our personal lives, we wear red, white, and blue to express the patriotic feelings we have for our country, and maroon and white as symbols of loyalty to our home teams, — and, even of our town itself. It seems to me that’s a good thing.
In the liturgical churches, we color-code our liturgical seasons, a very ancient practice that goes back to the beginning of the Church. In the Church, the color for Christmas is not red and green, as in the secular world, but white or gold, the colors used for paraments and stoles, until Epiphany.
Having grown up in a liturgical church, and, in later years, preaching in one, I find the color symbolism of the Church very meaningful. This year, the Church Season of Advent begins on December 1 and ends on December 24. Advent always starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and always ends on Christmas Eve; this means the beginning is always going to be between November 27 and December 3. During the Early Church, the color for Advent was purple, which was both a penitential color and the color of royalty, symbolizing the Coming of Christ. Since the Early Church celebrated the Second Coming of Christ during Advent, a penitential color was called for, emphasizing repentance in preparation for the End of Times and proclaiming Christ as King of Kings. From the earliest of times, purple was a symbol of royalty, the color worn by kings.
In more recent times, many liturgical churches have changed the Advent color from purple to blue, blue also being a color of Kingship, but not a symbol for penitence. The reason for this seems to me to be switching the worship emphasis from the Second Coming of Christ at the End of Times to the First Coming of Christ as a child in Bethlehem. We don’t like to think about the End of Times, but we love to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child to Bethlehem. Not only are the paraments and stoles blue in contemporary churches, but also three of the candles on the Advent Wreath are blue (the fourth one, of course, being pink) rather than purple.
The color purple for Advent has such meaningful symbolism for me that I was never tempted to change from purple to blue, either at my church, or on our Advent Wreath at home. Those weeks before Christmas should be a time of repentance and preparation. You see, the Latin word for “Advent” is “Adventus,” which means “coming.” Yes, Christ is coming first as a child to the little town of Bethlehem but understood in that Coming is His death and resurrection, which was necessary for our salvation, and which is followed by His Second Coming. The Early Church considered both happenings to be joyful events.
Even long before Christ’s birth in a stable in Bethlehem, purple was the color of royalty and nobility, as, for example only the Roman nobility wore the color purple. And that was partly due to the fact purple dye could only be made from a hard-to-find sea creature, thus it was the most expensive dye of all. Such an expensive dye made the cloth expensive, thus purple cloth was the most expensive cloth you could buy. This fact was still true during the time of Jesus, and makes us realize how wealthy Lydia, a seller of purple cloth, was. She gave financial support to the followers of Jesus and provided them with room and board, thus using her wealth to help spread the Gospel. Being a Christian did not necessarily mean being poverty-stricken.
Today, manufacturers of art supplies can create the color purple without using the scarce sea creature once necessary, so the significance of purple is sort of lost on us. However, the powerful symbolism of purple continues to be important in our lives in many ways. For example, the Purple Heart awarded by the President of the United States for bravery (wounded or killed) in battle is purple. Purple was chosen as the color of the heart, because it symbolizes courage and bravery, duty, honor, compassionate love, royalty, and good judgment, making it a powerful symbol.
To be sure red, white, and blue, maroon and white, purple, white and gold, and even red and green, are meaningful symbols in our lives.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.