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Posted on 03/07/2007 10:41:10 AM PST by Salvation
Other Articles by Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, OP
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|Feasting on Purple|
While serving on earth as God's elect vessel of grace, the pilgrim Church remains a most real, sensate, even sensuous, creature. Few times of the year reveal this more clearly than the season of Lent.
For the next several weeks, Mother Church, despite her penance, will wrap herself and her prayer in the most ostentatiously imperial of colors purple (or violet, for the more liturgically precise). Consequently, as Christian stomachs will fast during this holy season, Christian eyes will continue to feast.
To know the history of this color is to become aware of the near scandalous use the Church makes of it. On a deeper level, however, to appreciate the Church's adoption of this color for penance is to see more clearly the transformative power of her Master's grace. Conversion lies at the heart of Lent. Therefore, this penitential season reminds us, especially by its use of purple, that in the Redemption everything can be restored to the Lord and his purposes.
In ancient times, purple was the color of royalty and power. In Egypt, Rome, and Constantinople, the purple trappings of their offices distinguished the emperors and nobles from their subjects. Purple cloth, purple furnishings, and even purple ink served to call attention to the dignity and power they possessed. Worthy of note in this regard is a practice once found in the Byzantine world. Not to be outdone by their Western counterparts in imperial flair, the empresses of the East gave birth to their royal children in a purple chamber, in a room lined with porphyry, the purple stone of royalty. Thus, the infant princes earned the name porphyrogenitus "born to the purple" and the first thing to strike their infant eyes was the color of their future office. Even in ancient China the color purple gained royal favor. The official name of the Forbidden City is the "Purple Forbidden City."
Scripture also speaks of the royal and decadent use of the color purple. In the Old Testament, Daniel is promised jewels and purple garments if he can read the mysterious writing that appeared on the walls of King Belshazzar's palace (Dan 5:16). Dives, the wealthy sinner from St. Luke's Gospel (16:19), is described as draped in purple. So too is the cursed City of Babylon and its infamous whore in the Book of Revelation (17:4, 18:16). Not all instances of the color in Scripture, however, are associated with prideful human power. Elaborate instructions are given in the Book of Exodus for the use of purple cloth in the Temple. And all four Gospels detail how Christ's body, the New Temple, whipped and spat upon, was in kind adorned with purple.
It is this "Ecce homo" image of Christ, depicted in so many works of art, that inspires and shapes the Church's penitential use of this opulent color. The humiliated Messiah beaten, bruised, and bleeding is clothed by the soldiers in a purple robe as the King of the Jews. The world looks on this scene with horror. So do Christians. But we also see in the mocked Christ the form of our discipleship and the salvific mystery that shapes our prayer. Christ is the King of Glory, so the soldiers were right about something in draping His shoulders in purple.
We also put on purple during Advent in expectation of the King's second coming. Lenten purple, however, is different. During this season, purple draws us not to Christ's kingship only, but also to His Passion. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that the Messiah's dignity attained perfection especially through His suffering (2:10). Consequently, if Christ changes anything, if He in fact makes all things new (Rev 21:5), it is not by royal edict. He signs nothing with purple ink. Rather, as the suffering servant, He assumes the punishment for man's sins, suffers rejection and humiliation, mounts the wood of the cross, and sheds His blood for all. Thus, Lenten purple reminds us not only that Christ is King, but also how He is King, and by what means we are converted and are made new. Lenten purple calls us to conversion because it contains the crimson hues of Our Lord's blood.
The color purple, then, highlights the whole program of the Church's Lenten prayer. The purple shades of Lent focus our attention on Christ's kingship and, more importantly, on the sufferings that perfect His royal dignity and merit us grace, that gratuitous gift of God's own life that transforms our sinful hearts. It is a small sign of Christ's power that the feasting of our eyes on this luxurious color can move our souls to prayer and contrition. In the Redemption, the color purple no longer lifts human heads in earthly pride, but instead it lowers our heads, bends our knees, and brings our fists to our breasts as we plead for mercy. If, for our benefit, Christ effects this conversion in history's use of the color purple, imagine what He wants to do this Lent to the still black parts of our souls.
How I dislike those typos. Should be a capital "F" on Feasting.
We use purple this time of year also; altar cloths, vestments, cloths for the icon stands, vestments for the altar boys. Same reason too.
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