During my early years, I grew up in a church that wound its way through the months by following the liturgical church calendar. We had different-colored banners up in every season of the year, based on what was being observed in the cycle of the church. The ministers wore stoles over their robes–long pieces of fabric in vibrant hues–that matched the banners and proclaimed the season that the church was in.
When my husband and I attended an Anglican church for a couple of years, the colors, banners, and robes took on a new significance for me. These practical reminders taught me, spiritually, how to live into time as a Christian. As a student and now as a professor, my life tends to be built around the academic calendar of semesters and summers. At that church, I learned a new way of relating to time through color.
I have been thinking about this because the Church universal is now in the season of Lent–the period of time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday that is meant to draw our hearts and minds into somber reflection. It is a season of spiritual preparation and repentance as we consider the cost that Christ paid for our sin, and as we anticipate Holy Week–the week leading up to Easter.
Unlike the blazing red of Pentecost, or even the lively green of “ordinary time,” Lenten Sundays are full of the rich purple of royalty. The color reminds us, the people of God, that the King is making his way to victory, even though the victory initially looks like defeat. It reminds us of the royalty of Jesus even as he humbles himself all the way to death on a cross.
But then comes Holy Week, and with it comes a dramatic shift in hue. Although colors differ from church to church, in my memory Palm Sunday is red, looking ahead to the blood that Christ will offer on our behalf. Maundy Thursday, the night both of communion and betrayal, is white, a simple color for a somber day. But in the late hours of Maundy Thursday, the altar, cross, and banners are stripped bare of even this white fabric, leaving the symbols of faith as naked as Christ became.
Good Friday is sheathed in black. The color of mourning, the color of death. In my town, on this singular day of the year, a prominent church in the area unfurls three huge, black panels between the columns of their church entrance. They flap all day as a reminder that death is near–and that death must come before life.
Easter, in color as well as in truth, turns everything on its head. In Christ, death is turned to life; mourning is turned to joyful celebration. Resurrection–the reversal of the normal order–occurs. White is the color of the day, a reminder that he who first appeared plain–a Jewish man who was betrayed and killed–is actually more than a man. This simple hue is also, wonderfully, a reminder that white is actually the confluence of all color, and that in the resurrection, Christ has renewed all things. Nothing is outside of his healing, restorative resurrection.
Although I am no longer part of a liturgical congregation, I find myself drawn to the richness of the tradition, and to the power that simple things like colors have to tell us about the Gospel and about how we fit into the larger story of the Church. I may not see the banners and the robes on a weekly basis, but I try to remember the significance as I walk through the Lenten season.
In these days leading up to Easter, I want to more fully ponder the royalty of Jesus, this one who left his heavenly throne for an earthly cross. I want to remember the simplicity of this god-man who was stripped bare and bled. I want to take time to mourn the true death that he died, and then to anticipate the upending power of the resurrection and the newness that he brought to all life.
I want to color inside the lines of the Gospel story this Lenten season, by letting the Gospel seep its color into me.