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Why is Lent purple?

When looking around at your church, you may have noticed that some things look different during the Lenten season, perhaps the first being the use of purple during Mass. The priest’s chasuble (the outermost liturgical vestment) and the deacon’s dalmatic (a wide-sleeved long, loose vestment) are all purple. The altar is covered with a purple cloth.

Colours have always played an important part in the liturgy. According to Fr Michael Witczak, associate professor of liturgical studies at Catholic University in Washington and past president of the North American Academy of Liturgy, the colours “emerged out of the fact that people like variety, and the origin of colours are rooted in the meaning of an individual season”.

The choice of colour is neither random nor simply decorative; there is specific meaning during the liturgical year and colour becomes part of the way to honour a special occasion or sacrament.

Pope Innocent III, pontiff from 1198 to 1216 was the first person to systematise the Roman Catholic colour scheme. He listed the four liturgical colors: white, red, black and green. The exact shade depended on what dyes were available at the time, and names for the shades could differ, said Fr Witczak.

The current six liturgical colours, which include rose and violet/purple, were codified in 1570 with the promulgation of the Roman Missal after the Council of Trent. Gold and silver are allowed on special occasions.

The liturgical colour of Lent—the six-week time of preparation for the celebration of Easter, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the evening of Holy Thursday—is purple.

Purple is rich in symbolism, originally associated with royalty, because it was a more expensive colour to dye, according to Fr Witczak. It was used as an act of derision toward Our Lord when Pilate placed a purple robe on Jesus, whom he called “King of the Jews”.

 “The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.”Mark 15:16-20

Purple thus symbolises pain, suffering, mourning and penitence.

The fourth Sunday in Lent is called ‘Laetare Sunday’; ‘laetare’ is Latin for ‘rejoice’. It occurs after the midpoint of Lent and the deep purple colour of the vestments at the beginning of Lent are lightened to  a rose— the resurrection of the Lord following His death on the cross is drawing closer.