What are the colors of Christmas? Red and green, you might think. Why then, do we at the First Presbyterian Church of Easton decorate our sanctuary with purple in December?
The use of colors to differentiate “seasons” in a church year became a common practice in the Western (European) church in about the fourth century. The Reformation movement lifted up a great deal of criticism against many practices and teachings of the Church, including critique of the distracting ornate décor of worship spaces. Protestant churches which were born from the Reformation not only embraced certain Bible based teachings (grace, not works) but the new churches also sought a more simplified worship style.
Of course this reforming of worship happened in differing degrees; Lutherans emerged from the Reformation following a “liturgical” calendar and using colors to represent certain celebrations. But for Reformed churches (including Presbyterian) embellishments in the worship space were purged. But then during the 20th century, the ecumenical movement prompted the rediscovery of ancient Christian ritual. The feeling was that maybe we had thrown the baby out with all the bath water- some art and ritual could actually help us focus on God. Seasonal colors once again were used to help us focus on certain Biblical stories and about who God is to us.
So, why purple in December? Purple is used during our seasons of preparation: Advent and Lent. During the four Sundays before Christmas, which we call the season of Advent, we dedicate ourselves for the preparation of our hearts and minds for welcoming Christ. Purple is the traditional color of royalty. In ancient Rome, Adventus was a technical term for the ‘glorious entry’ of the King into the capital city. This often happened when the birthday of the royal leader was commemorated. The early followers of Jesus heard him preach about the contrast between the worldly empire of Rome and the heavenly kingdom of God. Jesus was the representative of God’s peaceable kingdom on earth. So we still use purple to remind us of the coming of the kingdom of God and the coming of our God and King, Jesus Christ, into the world.
Red can, traditionally, only be found on one Sunday during the liturgical year: Pentecost, where the church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the early church as tongues of fire. During most of the church year, which is commonly called "ordinary time", the color that you will see in the sanctuary is green. (Ordinary, related to ordinal or numbered.) Because green is associated with life, the use of green during the times when there are no big festivals or holidays reminds us that God is present among us, breathing life into us and into our church during ordinary times. We use white any time we are celebrating days that emphasize the divinity of Christ-- including on Christmas itself. Also, since white has come to symbolize holiness, it is also often used for the celebration of both baptism and communion.
In this season of Advent take notice of colors and the meaning we have attached to them. What do those colors tell us about who Jesus is? As your pastor, I will be asking you to think about the sacredness and stillness of blackness in a season of flashing bulbs and beeping screens as we wait for the coming of Christ. Also, please notice that we will have new paraments, fabrics with color, in our sanctuary. May the colors and symbols of these small, simple pieces of art help you in your worship.
Grace and peace,