Work to Do While We Wait

Originally posted December 5, 2016.


One of the fastest ways to start a light-hearted argument in a Lutheran church is to bring up the blue/purple debate around Advent.

Disclaimer: Results may vary. Author is not responsible for any threats of excommunication which may be incurred. Warning: Do not attempt on ELCA Clergy Facebook page as the debate may escalate quickly. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

Knowing that I’m treading into unduly controversial waters, let me throw a couple of cards on the table:

  • My background is in the United Methodist tradition. Growing up in the 90s and 00s, purple was still the preferred color for Advent. Purple for Advent brings back a lot of nostalgia. (Also, good Lord, am I old enough to have nostalgia?)
  • I’m convinced that the term adiaphora was coined specifically to resolve debates about liturgical colors. I can think of few things that matter less. Yes, colors have meanings attached to them, but these attachments are incredibly diverse. We’ll come back to this, but suffice it to say that the liturgical colors aren’t on the back side of the Ten Commandments. This is not a hill I’m willing to die on. In the end, if you want to send your altar guild on a shopping spree to buy a full set of blue vestments and paraments, go right ahead.
  • It’s adiaphor, but I’m still passionate about it.
  • I favor simplicity when it comes to vestments and paraments. Which is to say, vestments and paraments should be free of large, elaborate illustrations and words. (Looking at you, Gaspard.) In the same line of thought, the fewer sets needed, the better. If you can get away with using one set for two seasons, do it.
  • I’m not even going near the use of a rose candle and vestments for Gaudete Sunday. I don’t know why some people detest the rose candle so much, but they do. They’re wrong, but they do.

So…what color should we use for Advent?

My first instinct is to look at the Tradition. What colors have we used in the past, and why?

Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer — partially because there wasn’t a universal custom. Certain proponents of blue will point to the Sarum Rite, and some of the more liturgically savvy proponents of blue prefer to call it “Sarum Blue” — but the Sarum Rite actually calls for black during Advent AND Lent (hints of a connection we’ll revisit later on). I’ve also seen that the Swedish Church used blue, but I haven’t found a firm source on this — not that I’ve looked very hard.

As an aside, I have read that different dyes fade to different colors, and so the black vestments in common use may have faded to different colors based on what type of dye was used. Thus, in certain areas, the black Advent and Lent vestments faded to blue, and in other areas, where a different dye was in use, they faded to purple. I like this explanation, and you can read a variation of it here.

The one problem with the above explanation is that it fails to explain for the new-found distinction between Advent and Lent. Some parishes would use blue, others purple. Sure, that makes sense. But when and why did they start using different colors between seasons?

As far as I can tell, the primary color during the first half of the 20th century was purple. Across the board, in Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist parishes. Across the US, and presumably Europe as well. And then, suddenly, the Lutheran Book of Worship tossed a hand grenade into the fray, listing blue as the preferred color for Advent. To be fair, I don’t think they realized how passionate some parties would become about the liturgical color.

That timeline, by the way, is probably why it has become such a hot-button issue. Advent and Christmas are times when the liturgy gives way to nostalgia. For congregations that adopted the change quickly, they’ve been using it for nearly forty years. Even late adopters have been going on twenty. That means that we have two generations of people working in ministry who have firm associations of the blue Advent of their childhood, the same way I have firm memories of the purple from my own youth. Neither of us wants to admit that our childhood pastor could have been wrong.

Tradition struck out. What about the colors themselves, can light can they offer?

Colors and their meanings are remarkably fluid. Green, the color we associate with new life and growth, is also associated with envy. You rarely hear about a blue blood with a blue collar job. Pink and blue, the “traditional” distinctions for baby girls and boys, were reversed not long ago.

The main point I hear is that blue is the color of hope.

Prove it.

No, seriously, I want someone to show me an article from the history of art or theology that connects blue and hope — and before the great Purple/Blue Advent shift. I’ve seen and heard this article numerous times, but nobody has ever backed up the claim with anything. What makes blue the color of hope? Do we only think this because it was a way to make sense of the new, blue frontal on the pulpit?

If blue is the color of hope, sure, fine, we have a place to start a conversation. But saying it’s so does not make it so. It’s okay if you want to start a new tradition, but don’t make up facts to support your position.

A smaller group points to the connection between blue and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Fair enough, I’ll buy that as a foundation, but I have two points of contention. First, given the prevalence of the Lutheran Book of Worship in starting this debate, I would find it difficult to believe that Marian devotion played a significant role. Believe me, as an Evangelische Catholic, I would love to see a renewed devotion to the Blessed Mother, but I doubt that it was a driving force for Lutheran liturgical decisions. Secondly, Mary plays only a small part in Advent; she doesn’t show up until Week IV.

Both sides lay claim to the royal connections to their colors, and both sides are correct. From Rev. David Hansen’s blog, linked above:

Yes, blue is the color of royalty — but so is purple. Both colors of fabric were very expensive in the days before chemical dyes, because they required such deep, rich colored berries. If you lived around the Mediterranean, chances are your royalty wore purple — because those were the berries (or other natural dyes) in wide use. If you lived in Northern Europe, chances are your royalty wore blue — because those were the berries available.

Purple and blue have royal associations, and thus both are appropriate for our expectation of Christ’s advent.

Advocates for a blue Advent this year also point to the penitential implications behind purple. And they’re right! We use purple during Lent, and priests and pastors wear purple when visiting the hospital and hearing confession.

So really, it comes down to this: Do Advent and Lent have anything in common? Does Advent have a penitential aspect to it?

Yes. Absolutely, yes.

The liturgical calendar has a sort of symmetry about it. We mark two seasons of purple, in which we wait with proleptic anticipation for that which has happened and will happen, in penitence and hope, for Christ to show up — in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and at the Resurrection of the Dead. The two purple seasons are followed by the two white and gold seasons, when we celebrate Christ’s triumph — his birth, and then when he returns as the First Born from among the dead. And then each of those seasons are followed by the green of ordinary time.

As we anticipate both the Nativity and the Parousia, we are called to reflect on our own shortcomings. Christ came as a savior and redeemer, and will return as a savior and redeemer. As we await both the Triduum and the Resurrection of the Dead, we are called to reflect on our own shortcomings.

Our Orthodox sisters and brothers understand this; they mark their equivalent of Advent with a full fast.

Using purple for Advent reminds us of the inherent connection between the seasons of the Church year while also reminding us that there is work to be done while we wait.

If our only goal is to differentiate between Advent and Lent, then we are going down the wrong path. Some would dismiss the penitential aspect of Advent — as though that’s the only meaning purple has — while insisting that Advent is about hopeful preparation. But this misses the mark. Both seasons are about preparation, and preparation requires both penitence and hope. Both seasons call us to an introspective penitence while also joining in the hopeful expectation of Christ’s coming in glory. In Advent, we prepare for the Feast of the Nativity, when Christ entered our world, and for Christ’s return. In Lent, we prepare for Holy Week, the Triumphal Entry, the Passion, and the Resurrection, and for our Lord’s return.

Put up blue, if you want. But please, don’t deny the essential connection between Advent and Lent.

One thought on “Work to Do While We Wait

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