During the Easter season, including the 40 days of Lent leading up to it, we see both somber and joyful imagery. The contradicting imagery suits the season considering that Eastertime is a season of prayerful contemplation of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice, as well as a time of joyous celebration of His Resurrection and triumph over death. Amid the imagery of Easter is the color purple, which is called the color of Lent and which symbolized royalty in the time of Jesus.
What Is Lent and What Do We Do During That Time?
The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word lencten which simply refers to the spring season and the lengthening of days we see in the springtime. Scholars believe that Lent or a similar period of preparation and fasting in anticipation of Easter has been observed since apostolic times. Lent was formalized as a Christian practice at the First Council of Nicaea in the fourth century.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, a day marked by ashes being placed onto the foreheads of participants in the shape of a cross as a reminder told to the penitent that, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” (reminiscent of Joel 2:12-13). Lent lasts approximately 40 days before Easter and is a time during which Christians commemorate the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion.
The fact that Lent lasts approximately 40 days is no accident, as the number 40 in Scripture is significant. Biblical events grouped by 40 represent a period of testing meant to spiritually strengthen the person(s) being tested and put God at the forefront despite the tribulation at issue.
We see examples of the number 40’s significance in the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert before entering the Promised Land (Numbers 14), and, most importantly, in the 40 days, Jesus spent fasting and facing temptation in the wilderness before embarking on His public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11).
During Lent, Christians take stock of their lives in a sort of “spring cleaning” of any behavior that leads us away from Christ. As part of this spiritual self-reflection, we pray and repent of our sins while focusing on our mortality and dependence on God. Many Christians also fast and withdraw from certain activities during Lent to replicate Christ’s fasting and withdrawal into the desert.
Further, many Christians give alms or volunteer their time during Lent as a way of following Jesus’ command to love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Lent is also a time of renewal in which we take steps to recommit ourselves to Christ. This penitential preparation is done to pave the way for Easter.
How the Color Purple Became the Color of Lent and Easter: 4 Things to Know
1. The color purple signified royalty or authority in ancient times.
To understand why the color purple became the color of Lent and Easter, we must first look to the color’s significance in ancient society. In antiquity, purple dye was a prized commodity because of how difficult it was to obtain. In particular, purple dye was obtained from the harvesting of certain marine snails.
In light of how labor-intensive it was to produce purple dye, purple apparel was very expensive and often only worn by kings, other royal members, or those with high-ranking authority. As such, the color purple became known as a mark of royalty and sovereignty.
The Old Testament, likewise, elevates the color purple, as it tells us that the Tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant was made of curtains of “finely twisted linen and blue, purple, and scarlet yarn” (Exodus 26:1). Moreover, when King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he made the temple curtain with fabric of the same colors (2 Chronicles 3:14).
2. The color purple was used to mock Jesus as the king of the Jews.
The Roman soldiers who tortured Jesus during His Passion would’ve been well-aware of the imperial symbolism behind the color purple. This is why, in mocking Jesus before His crucifixion, the soldiers dressed Jesus in a purple robe and put a crown of thorns on His head, proceeding to then beat Him and yell, “Hail, king of the Jews!” (John 19:2-3).
In a further attempt to humiliate Jesus after the soldiers had removed the purple robe from Him, Pilate had a sign affixed to Jesus’ cross inscribed with the words, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). This inscription is memorialized on today’s crucifixes by the letters INRI, which are the initials for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Latin — Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum.
3. Churches use purple to emphasize Christ’s sacrifice before His Resurrection.
In remembrance of the purple robe the Roman soldiers put on Jesus in mockery, churches display the color purple during Lent to mourn the emotional and physical anguish that Jesus underwent during His Passion, and also to proclaim Him as the true King of Kings. In some churches, the clergy wear purple vestments, drape lecterns with purple cloths, and cover the front of altars with purple frontals.
In addition, some churches cover crosses, statues, and other sacred depictions with purple veils during Lent into Holy Week. The veiling of these sacred depictions is done to emphasize that, without Jesus’ sacrifice and Resurrection, our faith and everything related to it wouldn’t exist.
4. The color purple reminds us that we dishonor Jesus with our sins.
For churchgoers, the color purple adorning churches during Lent brings to mind the stark reality that we too have dishonored Jesus through our sins. In fact, it was our human propensity toward sin that caused God to send His only Son to serve as the last sacrificial Lamb to atone for our transgressions.
The color purple is, therefore, a somber visual reminder of the color worn by the true King before His ultimate sacrifice for us and prompts us to take action to repent of our sins, ask God for forgiveness, and renew our faith in Christ.
How Does the Solemn Purple Season of Lent Help Us to Rejoice in Easter?
The solemn purple that lines the Lenten road of self-reflection, repentance, and sacrifice helps us to better rejoice in the coming of Easter because we’re able to meet the Risen Savior with a renewed spirit.
The imagery of color continues on Easter day with the color white representing the purity of the Resurrected Christ. The color white befits our Lord, as He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and the Light of the world who defeats the darkness of death (John 1:29; 8:12).
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Dolores Smyth is a nationally published faith and parenting writer. She draws inspiration for her writing from everyday life. Connect with her over Twitter @byDoloresSmyth.