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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Signs of the Times and the End of the Age

Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:1-14).

The disciples, like the Pharisees, and indeed, all the Jews of Jesus’ day, took great pride in the temple. It was to the nation of Israel, as we might say today, a national symbol. In those terms, it might be compared to America’s Capitol Building, the White House, or the Statue of Liberty. More importantly, it was the center of Jewish religious life. It was where the sacrifice for sin was made. It was where the presence of God Almighty abode with his people. It was, in the Most Holy Place, where the High Priest, on behalf of all the people, would enter into God’s presence bringing the blood of the sacrifice for the atonement of their sin. The temple was supremely important to the 1st Century Jew.

The idea and function of the temple was important, both in political and religious terms, and this was reflected in its construction. Solomon had constructed a large and ornate temple which housed the Ark of the Covenant. Herod’s was smaller and less magnificent than Solomon’s, but it was still an edifice built to reflect its importance. Herod, the self-proclaimed king of the Jews, wanted to get on his people’s good side. The bulk of the work on the temple took a decade (between 20-30 BC) to finish; the whole thing wasn’t complete until about 60 AD (Packer and Tenney 1980). He built his subjects a structure in which they could be proud, in which their religious business could be conducted properly, and which would gain for him the admiration of his subjects. So it is a natural and understandable thing for the disciples, chests puffed up with pride, to point out the temple complex to Jesus while looking down on it from the mountainside.

Jesus doesn’t react in the same way as the disciples, though. He tells them that, one day, this magnificent temple will be utterly destroyed and, “…not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” The disciples shock and confusion is demonstrated by their response to Jesus. “Tell us,” they ask, “When will these things be? And what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” Their pride is in the temple. Its destruction, to them, can only mean the end of the world. They want to know what to look for so they can be ready.

But, Jesus is vague. It would’ve been more satisfying for the disciples in that moment, I imagine, if Jesus had given them a date and time. “Yes,” he might have said, “the temple gets it in 70 AD, but the world keeps chugging along well into the 21st Century…” Instead of giving them a detailed schematic of precisely how things were going to play out during the End Times, he warns them not to be deceived by false Christs. He tells them to watch for wars and rumors of wars. And, the things he describes – nation rising against nation, famines, pestilences, earthquakes – were all going on around the disciples at that time, just as they are going on around us today. The end of the age has already begun. The disciples were, and we are, living in the last days. Geopolitical conflicts and natural disasters can help confirm this fact, but they cannot show us when the end will come. Evidently, Jesus wants the disciples and those who come after, to feel a sense of urgency about the end of the age and the Last Day so that we do not procrastinate (Albrecht and Albrecht 1996).

So many Christians today attempt to read the Bible through the headlines of the newspaper. The alleged modern day prophets and self-proclaimed apostles try to figure out which woe or trumpet judgment of the book of Revelation we are passing through based on the world’s political situation or what color the moon is. They look for the coming of a glorious millennial kingdom and a rapture where Jesus returns secretly to spirit his followers from the earth, things which are foreign to Holy Scripture, at least in the way much of American Evangelicalism interprets those things. They have become distracted from what Christ has told us to focus on: Himself. Kretzmann, in his New Testament commentary, explains it like this:

There is no trace of an idea of a millennium in this [the disciple’s] question. The belief which the Jews held, and which Christ here supports, is that the present age of the world, the age of sin and death, will end with the Last Judgment, without any intervening time of millennial glory. This is indicated also in the answer of Christ, when He tells them to see to it, to take heed, to guard against deception and terror. For the signs that would precede both the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world would be of a nature to demand calm minds and brave hearts (Kretzmann 1921).

Jesus redirects our attention away from earthly glory, and the man-made and natural terrors of this age which will all pass away, to that which is really important – remaining faithful to Christ. We do well to remember Our Lord’s words here. Through all the terrors, trials, tribulations, and persecutions, “…he who endures to the end shall be saved.”

If we hear these words, “But he who endures to the end shall be saved,” as Law, there is no comfort in them. Indeed, they then serve the first function of the Law and show us our sin. How can I, a poor, sinful being, endure even one hour, let alone until the end? If it were a work left to us to perform, we could not. Christ, however, has become the ultimate sacrifice for sin. And he, our High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, entered the presence of the Father, not with the blood of beasts, but with his own blood, and obtained for us eternal redemption from sin and death[1]. He has come to us through Word and Sacrament and created faith in us; By Word and Sacrament He sustains that faith. The temple and its sacrifices were the shadow of the reality to come through Christ. There is no longer any need of the “type” once the real thing has arrived.

So, rather than being frightened by the wars and rumors of wars, we should remember that we are living in the last days and that the hour is late. We need to repent of our sin and trust in the Lord Jesus. We need to gather around Word and Sacrament to receive his gifts. We need to remember that, though the world is indeed increasingly evil and hostile to God, Christians are ever nearer the great day of Christ’s return (Engelbrecht 2009).

Works Cited

Albrecht, G. Jerome, and Michael J. Albrecht. People's Bible Commentary: Matthew. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1996.

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament. Vol. 1. 2 vols. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

Packer, J. I., and M. C. Tenney, . Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980. 

[1] But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:11-15).