The Advent/Christmas season is a time of contrasts. Many churches use colors to express this. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas day, many ecclesiastical spaces will be decked with the color purple, and in the twelve days between Christmas day and Epiphany (January 6) the color changes to white.
The same juxtaposition occurs in the season of Lent/Easter. Lent is signified by the color purple and Easter with the color white.
In my ministry with children we tell a story during the four weeks of Advent that begins with these words: “It is now the time of the color purple.”[i]
The story goes on to explain that purple is the color of kings. In this season, we remember that a king came—and is coming again.
It’s a mystery. Most kings come and go—and that’s it. Most kings do not come-and-go-and-come-again.
But Jesus is not like most kings.
So, in this season, when we especially remember the birth of Jesus, we act as if he still has not yet come. It’s a strange sort of drama, to be sure. It’s strange because, if we really practice this mystery, it disorients us—in a good way. It disorients us precisely at the time we feel we should be oriented. But the practice of such disorientation is good for us because through it we come to grips with the confusion of existence and the chaos in our own heart.
This confusion and disorientation is echoed at Lent, too. During Lent, when I describe the color purple to the children, I add the idea that “purple is a sad color, a serious color.”[ii] We say this because Lent is a time to remember the suffering of Jesus for our sin, it is a time to come to grips with our own internal chaos. In that respect, we understand why both Lent and Advent are “purple” and we wonder how we didn’t see the “purpleness” of Advent before.
We typically don’t think of Advent as a sad, serious time because in our culture the weeks leading up to Christmas are happy, “feasting” weeks. But Advent was not always treated this way. Throughout Christian history, the four weeks leading up to Christmas were weeks for fasting that corresponded to the six weeks leading up to Easter. Then, Christmastide (the twelve days after Christmas day) and Eastertide (the six weeks after Easter Sunday) were treated as true feasts.
The contrast is apparent: fast for Advent and feast for Christmas; fast for Lent and feast for Easter. The two cling together because feasting means little if we do not know fasting. Yet our culture tries to make us believe that the best way to prepare for feasting is to simply scaffold our feasting. In America, we build up to Christmas day by going to parties and making extravagant purchases as if we believe it is in our best interest to work up a spiritual tolerance to engorgement. But to pile feasting upon feasting is foolishness. We need both feasting and fasting.
In my ministry with children we portray the two-sided nature of life with objects that are painted purple on one side and white on the other side. I invite the children to try to “pull apart the colors.” The kids and I always smile and shake our heads when each person gives it a go. But, try as they might, they cannot “pull apart the colors.”
I say to them something like: “See? When there is one side, there is always the other side, too. You can’t pull the two sides apart.” But I find it interesting that it is still in our nature to try. Advent, therefore, invites us to consider this paradox: “We do well to remember that all is not well.”
Despite our attempts to confine Advent to a Christmas-happy place, it nevertheless remains a suitable time, a spacious spiritual place, to wrestle with realities that challenge us here and now. Advent is the perfect time to face our own growing darkness, personally and collectively, yet hold out hope the light will indeed lengthen in time. In fact, the faith claim intrinsic to Advent is that such an acknowledgement of darkness plays a key role in ushering in the light. Scientifically, that makes no sense but that is why we need faith. In Advent’s lab, to spot the darkness is to see the light. Yes, it’s a mystery.