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What does “Lent” mean, and why the color purple?

admin / March 18, 2016

Royal Spring Cleaning

Roberto Ceolin, PhD

Lent, which is now about to end, is part of the official liturgical calendar of the Church since immemorial times. The first secure mention of Lent (τεσσαρακοστή) we have is in the canon five of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) and, although its precise origins are difficult to establish, St Jerome and St Leo the Great in the West, and St Cyril of Alexandria in the East, agree in saying that Lent is of apostolic institution.

The Church’s liturgical calendar celebrates key moments in the life of Christ and of the Church. The practice of yearly remembering important moments in the history of salvation goes back to a direct order from God himself (Ex. 12:1-3, 17-18) when He commanded the Hebrew people to celebrate the Jewish Passover and instructed them on how do so. Jesus himself observed the festivities of the Jewish calendar (Mat. 26:17-18).

Lent and Holy Week, as well as Advent, are liturgical seasons which have a special nature of their own in the sense that, unlike the seasons of Easter or Pentecost, they are not the extension or the epilogue of a particular solemnity. Instead they precede major celebrations to which they function as both introduction and preparation. In fact, Lent refers to a period of preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

The English word Lent comes from the Old English word lengten which originally used to mean springtime, as its akin word Lente still signifies in Dutch today, or as Lenz and Lenzin still do in dialectal German. The semantic overlap between the two terms must result from the fact that Lent and springtime roughly coincide. The Latin word for Lent is quadragesima or fortieth. This word obviously refers to the forty days duration of the Lenten season which, according to the rubrics of the Roman Breviary, runs from Ash Wednesday to the first vespers of Palm Sunday.

Lent as a period of interior preparation for the Easter festivities brings to mind the forty days of fasting and prayer which Jesus took on in the desert as preparation for His public life (Mt 4:1-2), and the wanderings of the Hebrew people for forty years in the Sinai desert before reaching the promised land (Num. 32:13).

The oriental churches also celebrate this liturgical season which the Greeks call Μεγάλη Τεσσαρακοστή or Great Lent. The Orientals, except for the Melkites and the Maronites, do not celebrate Ash Wednesday. Instead they begin their Lenten season on Monday of the seventh week before Easter known as ἡ Καθαρά Δευτέρα ἡμέρα, or Clean Monday. During this first week of Lent the faithful are encouraged to go to confession and they start to spring-clean their houses. The custom of spring-cleaning during this season goes back partly to a Jewish tradition of cleaning the houses before the Passover in order to assure that there was no yeast left anywhere in the house. Confession and prayer are used, figuratively speaking, for spring-cleaning the soul of the old sin and for preparing it for the upcoming festivities.

As it used to be the case in the West, Orthodox Christians still consign great emphasis onto fasting during this period, so much so that the Greeks also call Lent the Μεγάλη Νηστεία or the Great Fast and the rules of fasting during this season are rather strict.

Previous to Lent proper, they have a pre-fasting period of three weeks in order to prepare for the Great Fast. Although the Latin Church has never had such an extended period of fasting, it had until the liturgical reform of 1969-70 (and it has still in the extraordinary use of the Roman rite), the Sundays of the Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. These three weeks preceding Lent already used purple as if pre-announcing the Lenten season. The unfortunate loss of this liturgical period is in a way a further estrangement from our oriental brothers.

The purpose of Lent is to enter into the mysteries of our Lord’s sufferings which pave the way to his Glorious Resurrection. In order to do so, and given that our nature is equally spiritual and bodily, through fasting and abstinence, prayer and confession and works of mercy we strengthen both the body and spirit in order to resist sin; and we do so by looking up to Jesus, a man of sorrows, rejected and despised by men (Is. 53:3). However, contrary to what happens in the Orthodox East, many of our Lenten traditions such as fasting and abstinence have been watered down or even given up altogether since the 1970s. Thankfully, however, there seems to be of late a u-turn on this policy and only recently, 2011 to be precise, the Bishops’ conference for England and Wales decided to restore the obligatory Friday fast in what was dubbed then as a historic day for English and Welsh Catholics.

It bears (re)visiting some passages of that powerful letter to the faithful of England and Wales. Among other things, it says that “the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful [is] a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity” as “by the practice of penance every Catholic identifies with Christ in his death on the cross. We do so in prayer, through uniting the sufferings and sacrifices in our lives with those of Christ’s passion; in fasting, by dying to self in order to be close to Christ; in almsgiving, by demonstrating our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ in those in need. All three forms of penance form a vital part of Christian living. When this is visible in the public arena, then it is also an important act of witness.” And it goes on by saying that “in all these ways we unite our sacrifices to the sacrifice of Christ, who gave up his very life for our salvation.” Indeed, we are called to complete with our own sufferings what is missing in the cross of Christ for the sake of the whole church (Col 1:24). And it is obedience to the laws of the Church that holds us together as a people and the practice of the Church’s traditions is the very expression of our identity as members of that same Church. Sometimes, however, obedience is said to give place to “conscience”, but, more often than not, that is just a heading which enables us to act according to our own conveniences.

A final word on the colour purple used during the Lenten season. After the liturgical reform of 1969-70, purple replaced black as the color of morning in the Masses for the dead. That has caused some confusion in the minds of the faithful who now seem to read a gloomy significance in the use of purple during Lent and even during Advent, though that is not so.

Up until the discovery of ammonia in the eighteen century the color purple was very difficult to maintain and purple fabrics had to be dyed again and again which was quite an expensive enterprise. As a consequence purple became a color affordable only by the rich and finally it was confined to the royals. (That’s why the soldiers mocked Jesus by dressing him up with a purple robe and a crown of thorns – Jn 19:2). Therefore, the true meaning of the purple color is royal dignity. And so, the Church dresses herself in this royal color while she waits, first in Advent, and then in Lent, for the coming of her glorious King.

It is typical of the Latin rite to symbolize gravitas with sobriety and simplicity as a means to emphasize content rather than form. In this context, the color purple is used to mark solemnity and not gloominess.

It used to be, and in many places still is, traditional to cover with purple cloths all images inside the churches during the last week of Lent and during Holy Week. This was to signal the centrality of the upcoming paschal mystery; nothing was supposed to distract us from that. At the Easter Vigil, while the organ blasted the first notes of the Gloria, bells rung madly through out the church and the lights of the church were lit, these purple cloths were removed from the statues and icons of Saints and Angels, revealing the members of the heavenly court surrounding their Lord risen at last.