On the traditional Advent crown or Advent wreath, the first three candles are purple, colour of royalty and, we are told, penitence.
The association with royalty is familiar and fairly obvious. Until the creation of modern artificial dyes, purple was one of the rarest and most expensive dyes to produce, made from the shells of a particular kind of sea snail at a ratio of shells-to-dye that would make an economist wince.
Accordingly, it was the colour habitually worn by Roman emperors, and various sumptuary laws down the centuries have restricted the wearing of purple to royalty or the uppermost classes.
But purple is a strange colour to represent penitence.
I would personally have thought that brown, grey or black would be penitential colours, representing sackcloth, ashes and mourning.
But no; penitence is symbolised by purple.
It’s a more pleasing colour to look on than brown or grey or black, especially in a candle, but is there more to it than that? After all, if we were used to black candles in the Advent crown, purple would probably look weird.
On closer reflection, purple might be a better colour to represent penitence than I first thought. Penitence is different from sorrow or mourning. Not only is mourning broader than just mourning over sin, but you can feel sorrow for your sins without necessarily exhibiting repentance.
It’s like political apologies in which a public figure expresses “regret” over some indiscretion or other; this is all too often a minimal expression of sorrow over the consequences, not a changing of heart and mind over the decisions that produced them.
Even worse is when it’s an “I’m sorry I got caught”, but most of the time that doesn’t even qualify as regret.
Penitence is what the Bible calls “Godly sorrow” – the sorrow for sin that produces real repentance. And it’s purple because it’s productive, not empty.
It’s not the brown of self-flagellation or deliberately-inflicted discomfort as an attempt to somehow pay the penalty yourself. It’s not the grey of ashes or a burned indication of unpleasant consequences, nor the black of empty space and the open grave.
No; penitence is a living purple.
The association of royalty together with penitence may be an instructive one, too. The essence of repentance is agreement with God that you are in the wrong, and throwing yourself on His mercy.
The mercy of the King.
Symbolically, the dispensing of justice and mercy is one of the prime attributes of kingship; only a just sovereign can display real mercy, because if there is no justice then not getting what you deserve is just randomness or whim. Mercy tempers justice, because without compassion there can be no justice; it is a royal quality to show mercy.
Associated with this, magnanimity is another symbolic attribute of kingship. The giving of gifts is a royal prerogative; the greater the King, the greater the gifts. God’s grace is without limit because His Kingship is without limit. And the same with mercy. As Shakespeare put it, “the quality of mercy is not strained”, given by the ocean not the dropper, because God really is that great a King.
Royalty and penitence, meeting in mercy. As we approach the birth celebration of the King who is the atoning Sacrifice, purple may be more appropriate a colour than I thought.