Reposted from my congregation's December newsletter, The Steeple Light
What is the “proper” color of Advent – blue or purple? Purple was the long-standing color used by Lutheran congregations, as well as other liturgical churches, through most of the 20th century. The purple of Advent and of Lent served two purposes – emphasizing the royalty of Christ, as kings in western culture over the centuries were often adorned with purple garments. Furthermore, purple has a penitential nature to it, inviting introspection and repentance on behalf of the believer.
Indeed, the connection of Lent – with its pilgrimage to the suffering of the cross – with penitential acts is pretty easy to make. As we reflect on the sin of the world that nailed our Lord to the cross, we also confess our own sin and seek to live more faithful lives.
But penitence in Advent, in preparation for Christ’s birth? Absolutely. For as we prepare to see Christ face to face, in the Christmas incarnation and in his promised return to earth, we anticipate both joy and judgment. Joy, for in coming to us God is bridging the gap that separates humanity from its Creator. But judgment, too, for in coming to us God will confront our sin and brokenness, and pass judgment on the degree to which humanity has been unfaithful to God’s commands and vision for human community.
That’s a pretty good case for a purple Advent, don’t you think?
Well, blue has a pretty good case to make, too. In the late 20th century, some churches began to use blue for Advent, while retaining purple for Lent. Why?
I can’t give you the historical details – what great church councils or scholars or congregations first began the shift. But I can tell you that blue offers us a different shade, so to speak, of Advent. If the purple of earlier years resonates with the penitential nature of the season and draws certain parallels to Lent, the deep blue of Advent highlights the expectant nature of the season, and of our faith.
Deep blue is the color of the clear, predawn sky, the color that covers the earth in the hours before the sun rises in the east. Most of us are not looking at the sky at that hour – perhaps we’re still asleep, or too weary to notice it as we get onto the Metro or hop into our car for a long commute. Nonetheless, a deep, dark blue is the color that covers us in the dark, cold hours before the sun dawns.
Thus we use deep blue for Advent to shade the season with a hint of expectation and anticipation of the dawn of Christ. Surely penitence and spiritual discipline is part of the traditional Advent observance, and this is why so many of you are using Advent wreaths and our congregation’s Advent devotional to mark the days of Advent. Advent is a time to recommit to our faith and to our God – no matter the color! But Advent involves more than penitence, and by using deep blue we err on the side of emphasizing the church’s hope-filled and faithful watch for Christ. The deep blue of Advent is meant to inspire in us the hope of faith, and to encourage us to keep watch for the promised light of Christ to break over the horizon, changing night into day, darkness into light, and filling our lives and our world with a holy and righteous splendor.
No matter your color preference, I hope and pray that you will find this season to be shaded by both the purple and the blue, by the reflective self-examination suggested by the penitential purple, and by the hopeful anticipation suggested by the predawn blue … for both colors call us to lives of faithfulness in this time before the coming of our Lord.