The Incarnation of Color
Sunday was the first Sunday in the 2014 Advent season and the beginning of a new liturgical year. For many Christians, this was marked by advent candles, purple vestments, and hymns longing for the coming of our savior. In Advent, we remember that the God who created all things, descended down into our world and became one of us. Through the divine mystery of the incarnation, the Almighty communicates his transcendence through the physical world around us.
A long study can and has been made about the coordination of particular colors with the seasons of the year and nearly every historic branch of Christianity has embraced both a liturgical Calendar with symbolic colors to mark the days. As we look back to a time when the darkness of man was pierced by the advent of a new and great light – we should see the new redeemed world as the refracted beauty of Christ’s perfect light. It is not merely from darkness to light – but from the utter darkness to the light of lights. The light of God’s promise was once raised colorfully above Noah and is now is the light of the world and the light of life. Christ has moved the world from a dark and cold blackness into the warm spectrum of hope.
A Horse of a Different Color
St. John’s work uses color to invoke particular ideas to the mind of his readers. In Revelation, a white horse is not merely descriptive, but instead serves as a reminder of the holy victory of Christ to a people nearing a time of great persecution. White becomes more than a color and embodies a feeling or encapsulates an idea. For this same reason, white continues to invoke the queenly idea of purity and beauty as a bride wears her dress down the aisle. To the first century Jewish reader, white is the Diamond of Naphtali and the clear Jasper of the New Jerusalem and this beauty of the kingdom is conveyed through a color.
Dr. Peter Leithart describes this phenomenon in relation to the essence of who our God is, “God is a communicative being. He doesn’t just use words; He is the Word. He made us in His image and likeness, as communicative beings. Even if we keep our mouths firmly shut, we cannot avoid saying something; we cannot not communicate. ”
The Calendar and the tone of the Gospel
Christ’s Church, through the use of vestments and paraments, has employed liturgical colors in accordance with the church calendar to focus our devotion on particular themes and tones of the Gospel.
In the Advent season, the color purple is used to symbolize the coming of a royal Messiah, our King Jesus. It is the beginning of the church year, just as the birth of Christ is the start of the gospel. In Advent we prepare for our Lord’s coming in three ways: celebrating his incarnation at Christmas, remembering his coming into our hearts, and anticipating his coming again to judge the quick and the dead. During Advent we recall Israel penitently waiting before the Messiah appeared. As the prophet Isaiah said,
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
The color purple should always remind you of this Scripture. During Advent we should place both this scripture and the color purple before the eyes of the people.
The Purple Christ at Advent
The wine our Lord chooses to demonstrate his real presence is purple and Melchizedek teaches us that wine itself is a kingly substance. Wine is symbolically identified with the blessings of the kingdom throughout the Scripture. This is what James B. Jordan calls “the eschatological Messianic kingdom feast.” The promised land in the Old Testament and the kingdom of our Lord in the New Testament are richly portrayed as places abounding with wine. Thus the color and substance work together, developing a rather pointed imagery – particularly relevant to the time of Advent.
The Bible describes the high priest’s clothing as fine linen and purple, and our Lord makes a reference to this in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is dressed in purple and fine linen — Jesus’ hearers would have seen an allusion to the high priest here. Christ’s reference to purple draws a literary connection in the minds of listeners. Christ’s nature as a our high priest is shown in biblical imagery as well; as when He was arrested, the Roman soldiers girded him in a purple robe. The color is not meaningless, but rather directs us to the notion that our high priest was to be the sacrifice, the royal sacrifice.
Christ Cleanses the Temple From What is Common
Attention to liturgical detail is in no way foreign to Christian thought or an innovation of Roman authorities. A familiarity with the Pentateuch reveals that God has plenty to say about the way he would like to be worshiped and these ceremonies were revealing the beauty of Christ. As Percy Dearmer rightly points out,
“Our Lord attended the ritualistic services of the Temple; nay, He was careful to be present at those great feasts when the ceremonial was most elaborate. Yet no word of censure ever escaped His lips. This was the more remarkable, because He was evidently far from ignoring the subject. No one ever appreciated the danger of formalism so keenly as He: He did condemn most strongly the vain private ceremonies of the Pharisees. Also, on two occasions He cleansed the Temple, driving out, not those who adorned it with ceremonial, but those who dishonoured it with commercialism. That is to say, His only interference with the ritualistic worship of the Temple was to secure it against profane interruption.” (The Parson’s Handbook)
Thus the richness of the church calendar is ever present. I pray that during Advent – we may be penetrated visually by the truth of God’s Word. May the purple of this season remind us of our High Priest and King Lord Jesus. May we be intentional in demonstrating God’s truth in all areas of life, both in the church and in our homes.<>