Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent Purple and Marian Blue

Our Lady of the Sign Icon
Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, Lowly, and sitting on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.’” So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!”(Matthew 21:1-9).

Growing up at Immanuel – Hodgkins, the color for the season of Advent was purple. That was just the way things were, and I never gave it a second thought. Alternatives listed in the calendar printed in Lutheran Worship notwithstanding, it wasn’t until I left Immanuel that I even realized there was another color designated for Advent. Blue paraments at my next two parishes seemed to me jarringly out of place as we looked forward to Christmas. When I asked why blue was preferred instead of purple, answers varied as they often do among Lutheran clergymen.

Purple is somber and penitential; it is appropriate only during Lent. Blue is the color of hope; Advent is the season during which we look hopefully toward the coming/return of Our Lord and Savior. Blue is the color of the pre-dawn sky. Just as the color of the sky heralds the return of the light of the sun, it was explained, so the color of the church heralds the coming/return of the true light of the world (That is way to artsy and emotional for my taste…gag!). And, possibly, the most frustrating explanation of all: Rome uses purple for Advent; It’s too Catholic.

Advent is indeed a time of expectant waiting for Christ. The Church teaches that Christ comes in three ways: 1) His incarnation, 2) His spiritual coming in the hearts of believers and his constant presence in the gathered assembly of the Church, 3) His return to judgment on the Last Day (Lueker 1984). With those things in mind, I certainly understand the expectant, hopeful character of Advent. Why the color blue is associated with the concept of hope eludes me though. Advent is also penitential, and we shouldn’t forget that. We are preparing for the coming of the Savior, both in the sense of celebrating his birth at Christmas, and looking forward to his second coming on the Last Day. I can think of no better way to prepare for Christ’s coming/return than to follow the direction of John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for him, and to repent.

For those who think purple for Advent is “too Catholic,” consider this: blue is the color traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary, though white is the prescribed Marian color in Roman liturgical practice (Penkala 2000). That’s pretty Catholic, if you ask me. Though she has no “official” color, in Byzantine iconography Mary is often portrayed in blue, along with red. This practice was adopted in the west and seems to be where we get imagery of the darkness of night giving way to the dawn:

Yet the mandorla[1] of the Mother of God differs from that of the Saviour both in colour and in the absence of gold work. Bluish-green, with pink round the edge passing into red, it seems to be a visual expression of the words of the akathiston to the Mother of God, in which She is sung as “the fiery chariot of the Word”… “The brightest morning…bearing the sun-Christ,” and so forth. The symbolism of the combination of those colours evidently corresponds to the darkness of the night of sin and ignorance and the dawn of the coming day of the restitution of the world. This emphasizes the cosmic significance of the Mother of God and her role in the restitution, for She has “renewed the whole world in her womb” (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982).

The blue pigment used in painting in centuries past was derived from the rock lapis lazuli, a stone imported from Afghanistan of greater value than gold. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, an artist’s patron was expected to purchase any gold or lapis lazuli to be used in the painting (Marian Colours and Religious Art 2014). Hence, it was an expression of devotion and glorification to swathe the Virgin in gowns of blue. Transformations in visual depictions of the Virgin from the 13th to 15th centuries mirror her "social" standing within the Church as well as in society (Marian Blue 2016).

I like to argue about things such as the appropriate color for Advent with tongue planted firmly in cheek. In reality, it matters little what color the paraments are, so long as we remember the purpose of Advent: to focus our attention on Christ and to prepare us for his coming. Advent begins the church year because the church year begins where Jesus' earthly life began — in the Old Testament prophecies of his incarnation (Frequently Asked Questions: Worship and Congregational Life n.d.).

Whatever color adorns the altar this First Sunday in Advent, blue or purple, our prayer is the same[2]: Stir up, we beseech Thee, Thy power, O Lord, and come, that by Thy protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by Thy mighty deliverance; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Works Cited

"Frequently Asked Questions: Worship and Congregational Life." The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. (accessed November 27, 2016).

Lueker, Erwin L., ed. Lutheran Cyclopedia: A Concise In-Home Reference for the Christian Family. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984.

"Marian Blue." Wikipedia. August 23, 2016. (accessed November 27, 2016).

"Marian Colours and Religious Art." Churchmouse Campanologist. January 3, 2014. (accessed November 27, 2016).

Ouspensky, Leonid, and Vladimir Lossky. The Meaning of Icons. New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1982.

Penkala, Gary D. "The Advent Blues." CanticaNOVA Publications: Traditional Music...for the Contemporary Church. December 2000. (accessed November 27, 2016).

[1] Mandorla: A pointed oval figure used as an architectural feature and as an aureole enclosing figures such as Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary in medieval art.

[2] Some have exchanged “Thee” and “Thy” for “You” and “Yours,” a heresy which we will address at some other time.