(Editor’s note: This is the second in a Lenten series. Deacon Frank Agnoli, director of liturgy, answers some of the most frequently asked questions about Lent.)
What is the significance of the color purple (violet) during Lent?
The meanings that we attach to a color are culturally determined. For example, we typically see white as a celebratory color; in other places, it is the color of death and mourning. It is no surprise, then, that the use of different colors to signify the liturgical seasons has varied over time, from place to place, and among the churches. Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) was the first to regulate liturgical colors for the local church at Rome, using only white, red, black (including for Advent and Lent), and green. The Council of Trent added purple (replacing black for Advent and Lent) and rose (for the 4th Sunday of Lent and 3rd Sunday of Advent to mark the halfway point of those Seasons) to this list, giving us the basic scheme that we still use today.
Since the meaning of Lent is broader than penance, and Advent is no longer viewed as a penitential season, perhaps rethinking the meaning of the color today would be helpful. For example, purple has long been associated with royalty because of how rare the pigment was in the past. Thus, considering Advent as a time of preparing for the coming of the King, and Lent as a time preparing for Christ’s crucifixion (in the Gospel of John, his being “lifted up” — the same word used for enthronement) and resurrection, the use of purple can be seen as especially appropriate. Some associate the “bluer” shades of purple with Advent — perhaps to reflect the Blessed Mother — and the “redder” shades with Lent — perhaps to reflect Christ’s blood.
What is the meaning of Lent? How should people approach the Lenten season?
Most of us have inherited a sense that Lent is only about personal penance. That’s understandable.
As Christianity became the state religion in the Roman Empire and across Europe, adult baptisms gave way to infant baptisms. Also, over time, the idea of waiting for baptism was replaced by the practice of baptizing infants as soon as possible. As a result, the idea that Lent had — primarily — to do with preparing catechumens for baptism faded away. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II called for a recovery of Lent as a baptismal season:
109. The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis.
The reforms that followed the Council, especially the restored use of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), have helped us recover this sense that Lent has much more to do with our common journey to the font. The Church’s Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar puts it this way:
27. Lent is ordered to preparing for the celebration of Easter, since the Lenten liturgy prepares for celebration of the Paschal Mystery both catechumens, by the various stages of Christian Initiation, and the faithful, who recall their own Baptism and do penance.
So, Lent is less about ourselves in isolation (and our personal sins) but about being a baptismal people, a people on a journey. We fast, we pray, we engage in the works of mercy—not just as an aid to our own conversion, as important as that is, but also in solidarity with the catechumens. We journey to the font together—they for the first time, and ourselves to renew our promises. So, we can say that we have recovered the earlier Church’s rich theology of Lent.