Pondering the "Purple Seasons"
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
As most of us begin this "purple" season of Advent, I find myself pulled into contemplating the other purple season: Lent.
It's an occupational hazard, partly. As someone who works somewhat ahead in the church calendar to provide resources for others who are also planning ahead, I find myself just now about to develop weekly planning helps for this coming Lent. In fact, I've already posted the updated "seasonal planning article" for Lent on the GBOD website.
Each of these purple seasons is troubling. Advent is unrelenting in its focus on the judgment of this age. The readings are week after week of harsh visions of the future for those who now tend to run the show, while also joy for all those "martyrs under the altar" on earth and in heaven. Lent is unrelenting in its call for us to take discipleship to Jesus seriously, a call that escalates to demanding nothing less of us than that we be prepared to die with him. Neither of these seasons comes across as particularly comforting news to most folks, it seems, packaged though they be in lovely purple wrappings.
Perhaps that is why I see so many of us finding so many ways to evade just how troublesome these purple seasons are. We replace the harsh visions of judgment that attend the second coming of Christ with a manufactured sense of preparing ourselves "to welcome the birth of the Christ child in us again" at Christmas. And we turn Lent's demands for mature, clear-eyed commitment to Christ here and now, no matter what, into an extended exercise of making ourselves feel sorry for what humans long ago did to make Jesus suffer so. Perhaps the impact of focusing on the suffering of Christ so intensely during Holy week is too much for us, if we do it at all, so we extend it to seven weeks in effect to to "thin out" what might otherwise threaten to devastate us-- as perhaps it should!
But that other purple season, Lent, isn't about devastating us. It's about getting us in shape. It's boot camp for the Christian soul. It's demanding, disciplined, stark, clear. It presents us with Jesus who requires things of us we may not have known we had. He sets the highest possible bar and not only dares us, but actually prepares us to leap it-- if we will cooperate with him.
Perhaps part of our difficulty with the purple seasons is that they are not intended for just anyone to appreciate. They're intended for disciples of Jesus and those actively seeking to become his disciples. Disciples of Jesus do not seek escape from the cries of the suffering, but like their master, hear them, join them, and in them find the promise of God for healing, deliverance and justice. Disciples of Jesus may never know all they have gotten themselves into, but they know whom they follow, and they will follow him to the end.
So for disciples of Jesus the purple seasons are ultimately joyous.
Advent is joyous for disciples, because suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope-- just as the apostle wrote long ago. In that hope is joy, because we discover anew how powerful and real and enlivening the second coming is, already now!
And Lent is joyous for disciples, because in and through its demands and disciplines our death into Christ becomes more fully known. We count such death all joy. To be more and more absent from this body of sin and death is to be present with the Lord even in this earthly tabernacle.
But neither Advent nor Lent is joyous for disciples or those seeking to become Christ's disciples if instead of them we are only offered what is thought to comfort or sustain or please those who may have peripheral interest in Christ's way. To put it plainly, Advent as "getting ready to welcome the Christ child" feels insipid to us, if not obscene. We hear the cries of the poor. Our longing, with theirs, is for no baby but nothing less than Christ in all his glory to rend the heavens and come down! Lent dragging on for weeks as "look at all he suffered for you" feels boring, if not insulting. We who seek to follow Jesus do not expect him to protect us from suffering, shame and death, but to lead us into and through death's very heart to life.
These seasons are purple for a reason. They speak of Christ's crowning glory, and so ours in him when we walk as he still walks-- by the Spirit's power and the Father's love.
Disciples of Jesus know the pressure pastors and worship leaders are under from the congregations you lead to mitigate the threats and demands the purple seasons bring. We know most people attending worship do not seek or want what these seasons offer us. We also get it that they pay the bills more than we do, if only because there are more of them, at least for now. We love you, and we love all those who do not yet seek what we seek.
So, we understand the evasions. We accept they may be necessary.
We only ask this. For our sake-- for those of us who seek Christ in the power of the convicting and cleansing Holy Spirit in the purple seasons with all their threats and demands-- provide some path, some set of disciplined relationships, at least, so we may know in them and share in them with others more and more the way that leads to Life.
Or give us room to forge such paths ourselves.