Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which marks the beginning of a new liturgical year in the Christian calendar. Advent refers to the coming of God into the world (Latin, advenio) in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, God is not “out there” in the cosmos looking down at us. Rather, he is here among us (Hebrew, Emanu-El). As the Nicene Creed (325 AD) proclaims, Christ “came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
Liturgical seasons have colors. Advent’s is purple, which on one hand signifies fasting, repentance, and preparation and is the reason it is also used during Lent. On the other hand, purple symbolizes royalty and kingship, with Christ being not only king of the Jews (note the foreshadowing of his crucifixion) but priest and prophet as well.
Advent is also a time par excellence of waiting. Christians gather in the assembly to prepare and wait for Christ’s birth, the Second Coming, and the Last Judgement. All three are rolled into one liturgical event that is said to occur outside of time and space.
Purple represents other things, of course, although I gave up a while ago trying to keep track of them. In the past I associated it with gay pride, Planet Fitness, and Yahoo! I don’t know if the people connected to any of these chose purple deliberately, but I remember thinking Planet Fitness was either a gay company or an ally. They had “no judgment” printed all over the walls and equipment. Turns out it referred to things like body shaming and self-consciousness.
I am learning constantly. This week someone mentioned how she anticipated reopening her business, a dance studio, but then things “went purple” again. I had no idea what she was talking about and ran through a mental checklist. In addition to the above, I came up with “Purple Rain,” “Purple Haze,” purple hair dye, and eggplant. We were interrupted before I could respond, so I just nodded. Later that day, when my granddaughter asked why I stopped at red traffic lights, I thought again of purple.
The business owner meant that county health officials had issued a new warning about COVID-19 restricting gatherings and outdoor activities. The outdoor restrictions have puzzled me from the beginning, since I assumed that fresh air and sunlight would be better than a lockdown and going around masked like a stagecoach robber. However, in expressing that opinion, I have learned that “PPE” now ranks with religion and politics as a taboo conversation topic.
Choosing purple to represent the highest risk level for a virus seems arbitrary, especially when red represents the level just below it. If I had to explain this to that same granddaughter by way of analogy, I would say that we slow down at red lights and stop at yellow ones, which would just confuse her. It confuses me.
It is possible that the county didn’t want to scare people with the colors. But, if so, why did they let us know about the new level by buzzing our cell phones as if it were an Amber Alert? I am reminded of those photos of missing kids on milk cartons. It’s obvious to me that no one in a decision making role has any idea about symbols, how to use them, or the psychology behind them, but that’s best left for another post.
If you remember, color coding started with Homeland Security. At least they put some thought into their color scheme. It’s important to get that right with terrorist attacks. They no doubt were inspired by the military’s use of “DEFCON” levels. Interestingly, the Pentagon had settled on white as the highest level, which coincides with the Christian use of liturgical colors (see above).
In comparing church and county, the use of purple in both cases has to do with waiting. In Advent, we wait for salvation from death and darkness. The county, not surprisingly–maybe even appropriately–wants us to prepare for and expect the worst. Both have our best interests in mind.
But they couldn’t be further apart.