Purple Seasons of Preparation

About ten Sundays a year, purple vestments and altar hangings adorn sanctuaries in Anglican churches.

Purple signals the season of Advent and the beginning of a new Christian year, either the last Sunday of November or the first Sunday in December. Then follow the seasons of Christmastide, Epiphany, and the season after Epiphany. Purple returns on Ash Wednesday as Christians enter the season of Lent.

(To learn more about the Christian calendar and the liturgical year, click here.)

Purple vestments and altar hangings are visual cues that Anglicans have entered a season of repentance.

If you were to ask my children, who learn the liturgical year through Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the meaning of purple, they would say, “purple means preparation.” That’s a good summary and beginning for children and grown-ups.

Both Advent and Lent call us to intentionally prepare our hearts to worship Jesus in spirit and in truth. In Advent and Lent, spiritual preparation requires active repentance from habits and patterns of life contrary to the way of Jesus.

By intention, our Anglican rhythms train us to connect these spiritual themes of preparation and repentance in Advent and Lent. On the first Sunday of Advent and the first Sunday of Lent, the priest reads the Exhortation before the Eucharist. The Exhortation is an extended word of instruction for Anglicans to practice humility, reverence, and repentance toward God and neighbor before we receive holy communion.

However, while there are several similarities between Advent and Lent, there are differences between these two penitential seasons. It’s good to perceive those differences to enter more deeply into each season.

(To learn more about Advent, click here. To learn more about Lent, click here.)

The Royal Coming(s) of the Son, the Royal Way of the Cross

Purple vestments not only signify a call to preparation and repentance; they signify the royal nature of Jesus.

However, Lent reveals Jesus’ royal nature in a different way than Advent. During Lent, we prepare our hearts and lives to follow Jesus on the royal way of the cross.

As N.T. Wright says, the cross reveals how God became King again. Crowned with thorns, mocked with a purple robe and a reed for his scepter, Jesus climbs the royal way of the cross to Gologtha to defeat the power of sin and death.

Lent calls us to repent and prepare our lives to follow King Jesus along the royal way of the cross as we prepare for his resurrection on Easter morning.

Advent is a season of royal expectation, too. But the royal character of Advent is different than Lent. St. Thomas Aquinas famously summarized Advent as a season to observe the three comings of Christ. In Advent, St Thomas says we prepare for:

  1. Christ’s first coming in his Incarnation
  2. Christ’s second coming in glory
  3. Christ’s personal coming to our hearts

Advent is most like Lent when we meditate on Jesus’ first coming, the humble birth of his Incarnation. The scene and symbols of Christ’s birth, such as the gifts of the Magi, foreshadow the royal way of the cross.

But Advent begins with a thunderclap, a royal announcement of King Jesus’ promised return—his second coming in judgment and glory.

Then, the middle Sundays of Advent feature the life and message of John the Baptist. John’s life and message particularly emphasize the urgency to prepare our hearts for Christ’s personal coming.

The Key Difference

But here’s the key difference between Advent and Lent. In Lent we’re particularly meditating on Christ’s victory at the cross within history. In Advent we’re particularly meditating on Christ’s victory at the end of history.

To be sure, both seasons of repentance re-frame our stories now. These seasons aren’t history lessons. They are “living and active” stories and both seasons give shape our stories. But Advent gives us a different orientation in time than Lent does.

Advent Leads Us to Sanctify Personal Time

Advent calls us to specifically reflect on what it means to live in time, knowing that Christ could return at any moment. The Day of the Lord receives more emphasis in Advent than Lent. In Advent, the Holy Spirit speaks with urgency through scripture. “Stay awake.” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” “Watch yourselves lest (the Son) come suddenly and find you asleep.”

The Holy Spirit requires we face a sober truth in Advent: your days on this earth are limited.

Anglicans communicate the physical reality of our mortality at the beginning of Lent when ashes are imposed on Ash Wednesday. Advent emphasizes the temporal reality of our mortality when we speak and sing of the Day of the Lord’s return. The Spirit seems to address us in Advent, “Examine the days ahead in light of the Day of the Lord.”

Practicing Advent Repentance

For Anglicans (and nearly all Christians, for that matter), Advent does not call for the same rigor of fasting and self-denial. Whereas the Church calls for actions of fasting, almsgiving, and self-denial in Lent, we don’t have the same summons in our Advent liturgies.

But if we heed the Advent call of repentance and preparation, we need to practice spiritual disciplines with intention this season. Spiritual disciplines won’t happen without intention and planning this season. The temptations of distraction are too great in our culture in December.

Given Advent’s emphasis on the Day of the Lord, I suggest we examine our calendars in a prayerful way. Look at your personal, family, or business calendar. Do your days reflect who God has called you to be and what he has called you to do?

To ask the question in a different way, I’ll quote the poet Mary Olive, from her poem The Summer Day:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do/
with your one wild and precious life?

This is the kind of question royal sons and daughters of the King are meant to ask. And Advent is the season for asking such questions in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In my next post, I’ll suggest a practical way to observe what I call a Calendar Fast in Advent. In the meantime, I hope you’ll listen to these questions with the Spirit. That’s what this season is for.