I am writing this on Friday, December 4th, 2020.  As has been the pattern for this year, COVID-19 continues to affect us as individuals and as a community.

Every state in our country is dealing with the Coronavirus in a variety of ways. There are different color scales trying to easily communicate the level of risk or the numbers of cases such as low, medium, high.

We live in Ohio. Pennsylvania, our neighbor to the right, uses Yellow and Green. If you travel down south to Georgia or Texas, I am not sure anyone there knows what the color levels are.  In Ohio, we just turned Purple. That designation immediately hit me: Purple is the color of Advent.

Purple was rare and expensive in the ancient world. Because of its scarcity and value, Purple signified prestige or royalty. It was the most expensive dye known to the ancient Israelites. It was the preferred pigment for those of noble or royal birth or for those who were high-level officials. Roman Emperors wore purple-colored clothing as well as did Catholic Bishops.

In ancient times, the cities of Tyre and Sidon were well-known producers of purple dyes and cloth.  The color would come from a tiny snail in the Mediterranean Sea. Each snail only produced a single drop of fluid. To produce one pound of purple dye, you needed to harvest about 4 million snails.

The word purple appears in the Bible over 50 times, nine of which are in the New testament.  Purple represents royalty, majesty and high officials[1] as well as wealth, prosperity and luxury.[2]

Purple was an important part of the temple and worship.[3] It was used in temple veils and carpets found in the tabernacle, including the robes worn by the High Priest.  Because working with purple was such an important skill, King Solomon requested from Tyre’s King Hiram a man who specialized in Purple dyeing[4] to supervise building the temple.

During his second missionary journey the Apostle Paul finds himself in Philippi.[5] On the Sabbath he meets a businesswoman named Lydia from the city of Thyatira who traded in purple dyes.[6] Thyatira was well known for its textile and dyeing industry. She was probably very wealthy as a result of her trade. Lydia owned a home both in Thyatira and Philippi.[7]

For the church, at least for Liturgical churches, Purple is considered the main color of Advent as it symbolizes fasting and repentance.  During Advent, liturgical churches cover the altar with Purple cloth.  Since Purple is also the color of royalty, it points to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, and the anticipation of the coming King celebrated during Advent.  In our tradition, the first candle of the Advent Wreath is the candle of hope is Purple.

In many churches, the most popular colors for the four Advent candles are purple and pink, corresponding with the colors of the liturgical vestments for the Sundays of Advent. Purple is the traditional color of penitential seasons. Pink is the liturgical color for the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin word meaning “rejoice ye”); it is a pause in the penitential spirit of Advent. As such, the third candle, representing joy, is often a different color from the other three, usually Pink.

It is more than ironic, that Purple is the color that we find ourselves and that it is Purple that is causing us to close during Advent.

One of the things we are wrestling with is pausing our live churchservices. No one wants to lose Christmas.  In a year where Easter services fell by the wayside, there is a resolve at least within me to say, “I want Christmas! I want the trees, the garland, and I want to walk through the four Sundays of Advent with my church and light the candles on the slow march to Christmas.”

I feel like I am in a typical Christmas movie. The only plot that Hollywood seems to produce since the days of classic Charlie Brown, Rankin-Bass Claymation, or the Grinch all the way to today is the idea of saving Christmas. Will Santa fly this year? Will Christmas happen? Who will save Christmas?  As I watch the news and the press conferences with various governors, I am waiting eagerly for Tim Allen, Ed Asner, Tom Hanks or Richard Attenborough himself to show up in his sleigh and save the season once and for all.

However, I am quickly reminded, the savior of this season is not Santa. It’s not a mask, an election, a vaccine or a president. The savior of this season is Jesus. And he was born into a world fraught with much more peril in the Roman Empire.

My Christmas story is saved by a man who wore purple.  The Gospels of Mark and John[8] state that the robe Pontius Pilate’s soldiers placed on Jesus, in order to ridicule him, was purple. 

He was willing to put on purple in front of the mocking crowds.  John 19:2, “And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe.”  Jesus wore Purple so that we could be his people during this season.

For me this season, Purple is the color of Advent. And it is way more than a color on the wreath or the vestment on the pulpit. It is the color that reminds us of what Jesus does for us; and in response, what I must do for Him. It is interesting that Purple shows up again during the Passion accounts in the gospels.

Live this season in the Purple. Not a life lived in fear and hiding, but one of freedom and charity. Socially distant does not mean socially asleep.

In the end, Jesus went through social distancing in a way that none of us will ever know. Being on the cross meant you were separated. You were cut off.

 Isaiah 53 paints for us a picture of both a suffering servant, but also a socially distant savior:

 3 He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?

And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.

Part of what made the path of Jesus so difficult was the loneliness. The physical pain and punishment are enough. But to do it all by yourself, that makes it too much to bear.

When we walk through this Purple season, know that this savior is with us. We are never truly alone, and he is not socially distant from him this season.

[1] Judges 8:26, Esther 8:15

[2] Exodus 28:5, Ezekiel 27:7, Proverbs 31:22, Song of Solomon 3:10, 7:5, Luke 16:19, Acts 16:14, Revelation 17:4, 18:12, 16.

[3] Exodus 25:4, 26:1, 36, 27:16, Numbers 4:13, etc.

[4] 2 Chronicles 2:7

[5] Acts 16:9 – 10

[6] Acts 16:14 

[7] Acts 16:14 – 15

[8] Mark 15:17, 20, John 19:2, 5