The sanctuary was decorated for Advent last Sunday, and I thought it was beautiful. Others did too. But a few commented on the purple theme. “It’s Christmas-time, right?” they said. “Then why is purple the color?”
This is known in the business as a teaching moment. And I took advantage of it.
But I’m still wondering about the comments. It’s no wonder that Christians struggle with the surrounding culture at this time of year when they don’t know much about their own history and traditions.
One way to observe the season – and it’s growing in popularity – is to accuse Western culture of declaring “war on Christmas.” You observe the season in this way, for example, by boycotting stores where employees call out “happy holidays,” instead of “merry Christmas.” Facebook posts too become opportunities to be aggressive – and obnoxious – about “the true meaning of the season.”
But being angry and confrontational seems – to me, anyway – to defeat the meaning of the season. If the Prince of Peace is coming into the world, then there ought to be a different way of celebrating, don’t you think?
And there is.
Almost from the beginning of the church – we’re talking about nearly 2,000 years of history here – Christians have observed this season of the year as a time of waiting and watching. Christians have slowed down while the rest of culture has speeded up. Christians have spent time in quiet reflection – for example, cultivating the habit of wonder.
Instead of obligatory parties and a frenzied atmosphere of gift giving, Christians have historically opted for something quieter and more contemplative. My daughter’s church in St. Louis observes the start of the season with a “watch night” service. Talk about counter-cultural!
The staff at my church is forgoing the usual Christmas party this year by volunteering for a day at The Shepherd’s Way, a local homeless shelter.
So, back to the color purple. At this time of year we wait for the arrival of a king, and the color of royalty has always been purple. Hence, the liturgical color of the season is … yes, purple. (And for those of you who are interested, white is the color of Christmas and Easter, while green is the color for the season following Pentecost.)
The trajectory of the Christian church these days has been away from custom and tradition. New churches open up regularly in warehouses and shopping malls, not the suburban neighborhoods of the 1950s. And while I am drawn to much of the creativity and energy I see in these innovations, I wonder about what we’re leaving behind – like the observance of a season such as Advent or the use of liturgical colors in worship such as purple.
These things have stood the test of time for a reason. They teach us about who we are and what we value.
Speaking only for myself, I’ve had enough of Christmas as the culture around me likes it, and I’ll take custom and tradition any day.
Anybody with me on this?