Reclaiming the Symbols of Lent: Purple Robe”

Mark 15:16-20

I’d like to invite you to take a moment and immerse yourself in the color purple. Close your eyes if you’d like and imagine a field of purple flowers. Take a deep breath and inhale their fragrance. Take a walk in the field. Touch the flowers. Enjoy the beauty. Surround yourself in the color and the fragrance. Lavender. Lilac. Violets. Iris. Orchids.

Take in all the purples you can imagine with your eyes. Indigo. Deep purple. Plum. Magenta. Mulberry. Grape. Wine. Visualize them all. Allow them to overtake you and immerse yourself fully into this color. Enjoy purple.

In her book “The Color Purple”, Alice Walker has the character Celie say, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.” After the brief time immersing ourselves in purple, I hope you can identify with these words. Purple has a unique quality of majesty and beauty. It is regal. It symbolizes royalty, elegance, spiritual depth, and wholeness.

Color is an unspoken language that creates an immediate, emotional connection with the meaning of an event. Many of you, although you may have been married for decades, can still name the exact shade of the colors used in your weddings, for example. Or the color of your childhood bedroom; or the color of your first car. Like other sensory stimuli, color signals memory and takes us to a time and place in our minds. 

My children were born close together and often argued about which child was the favorite. I found a book for our youngest (who was the most concerned about who I loved the most), entitled “I Love You the Purplest”. In the book, two brothers ask their mother who she loves the most. She answers one child that she loves him the bluest – the color of a dragonfly at the tip of its wing; the color of a cave at its deepest part; the color of the mist of a mountain…” She answers the other son that she loves him the reddest – “the color of the sky before it turns into night; the color of the leopard’s eyes; the color of the campfire before it blazes into flame…” The boys go to sleep dreaming about how much their mom loves them. I read that book to my children each night, hoping to reassure them that they were loved at the deepest depths of my heart. I loved them the bluest; the reddest; and together I loved them the purplest.

Purple is the traditional color associated with Lent – the season 40 days before Easter. Lent is a time to focus on our relationship with God, a time to give something of ourselves, to volunteer or give something of ourselves for a higher purpose. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring”. These 40 days (plus Sundays) represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring temptations and preparing to begin his public ministry. Purple is a color rich in symbolism that is used two times in the church calendar – for Advent and for Lent (before Christmas and before Easter). Each of these times is represented by purple because it is a time to prepare us for the coming of Jesus – his birth and his death – for his coming into our lives and his saving acts.

In the Roman Empire, the color purple was associated with triumph. It was a color reserved only for emperors. At the time of Jesus, the dye used for making the color purple had to be extracted from a tiny Mediterranean Sea snail gland. Each snail produced only a single drop of the needed fluid. So, to produce a pound of the dye, it took thousands of mollusks (one resource said it took millions). That’s why purple dye was reserved only for royalty. In the Bible, the word itself represents (and is synonymous with) wealth, prosperity, and luxury.

It wasn’t until the discovery of ammonia in the 18th century that the color purple became easier to maintain. Until then, purple fabrics had to be dyed again and again, which was an expensive and tedious process. Who knew that ammonia made our access to the rich color of purple fabric easier, even today?

Part of the crucifixion story is that a purple robe was placed on Jesus. Whether or not this is historically accurate is to miss the point of the story. The Gospel of Matthew says that it was a scarlet robe. The Gospels of Mark and John identify the robe as purple. I believe the robe is a symbolic part of the story meant to identify to the reader that Jesus is being mocked as a threat to the empire. Here is the story as recorded in the Gospel of Mark: 

Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. Mark 15: 16-20…   

Mark highlights the crucifixion with irony. He includes a clear theme of royalty that is obvious to the ancient reader. Jesus is dressed as a mock king. The soldiers beat, spit at and pay sarcastic homage to Jesus as a Jew. They pretend to hail him as if he was Caesar, although he is clearly not a threat to imperial power. The purple robe is a symbol for the political power Jesus does not have but is perceived to have disrupted. 

Can you think of modern day equivalents? People who have no power, but are given symbols of power so that they can be mocked for the very power that they do not have?

Science tells us that the color purple has a variety of effects on the mind and body, including:

* lifting our spirits

* calming our minds and nerves

* enhancing our feelings of spirituality

* increasing nurturing tendencies and sensitivities

* encouraging imagination and creativity

In fact, purple helps us align ourselves with the whole of creation.  Purple has been chosen to symbolize other things.  The United States military awards the Purple Heart to soldiers wounded in battle.  It has come to be the color of courage.

In the 12th century, Pope Innocent III was the first to specify the colors of vestments to be used and purple became the color for Lenten observance. 

Ultimately, purple is the color of irony. For Jesus, it was a color of royalty and mockery. For US soldiers, it is the color of courage, yet death. For us, it is the color of Lent – the color to remind us of our betrayal and our journey to new life.

Purple signifies Jesus' dual role as king and his humble life as a carpenter, lived in poverty and service to others. He experienced mockery and misunderstanding by others and died because he was perceived to be a threat to the empire. Yet he remained humble, loving, and forgiving while he was mocked and ridiculed for wearing costly purple cloth, the ultimate irony.


Resources Used:

     The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.  Vol. VII.  Abingdon Press. 2015.  “Meaning of the Color Purple”.   “What does ‘Lent’ mean, and why the color purple?”  March 18, 2016.  “What is Lent and why does it last forty days?” 

     “The Color Symbolism of Lent and Easter” by Catholic Financial Life.  March 21, 2014.  “Purple in the Bible”.