Wednesday, January 18, 2023

A little blue. . .

There has been much ink (and digital ink) spilled over the debate of the color of the season of Advent.  Some insist that the historic color is purple, or actually violet, and that this is the holy grail of true confessional and liturgical authenticity.  Others have adopted blue without much fuss.  Some don't care.  Some complain about the cost of paraments no matter what their color and dislike vestments as well.  So what to do.

First of all it might be good to review a little bit about the season and the difference between Lent and Advent even if the color remains the same.  There are more than a few nuances to consider here.  On the surface it might appear to the naked eye that Advent and Lent are the same kind of liturgical seasons, both expressed by the color violet, and both serving as a time of preparation for one of the Church's major feasts.  According to Saint Gregory of Tours, the formal celebration of Advent began sometime about the year 480 AD when the Bishop Perpetuus directed that starting with the St. Martin's Day on 11 November until Christmas, one would fast three times per week.  For this reason it was sometimes called the "Lent of St. Martin."  No one can fully know if this really established a new custom or if it merely encoded into liturgical law an already existing practice.  The force of this law began to be relaxed and the forty days from St. Martin's day to Christmas were reduced to four weeks about the ninth century (the time as we now know it).   Over time the fast was obligated only to monks and priests and then only to monks but other regions required it of all the faithful.  There was no uniformity to the practices at that time.

The Greek Church still continues to observe the fast of Advent, though with much less rigor than that of Lent. It consists of forty days, beginning with November 14, the day on which this Church keeps the feast of the apostle St. Philip. 

In the West, in the Gregorian sacramentary, these Advent Masses numbered five -- counted inversely, that is, the nearest to Christmas was called the first Sunday, and so on with the rest.   The present practices of the observance of Advent have then lasted a thousand years or so, at least as far as the Church of Rome is concerned.  

As far as the color of the season, it might surprise folks to know that the colors are not ancient nor uniform (especially comparing West to East).  The use of color to differentiate liturgical seasons began about the fourth century. At first, usages varied considerably by availability and local custom but by the 12th century Pope Innocent III had systematized the use of five colors: Violet, White, Black, Red and Green.  However blue was also an ancient color that continued to exist in certain regions long after the 12th century (in Spain and in Sarum usage, among others).  Rose was used for the third Sunday in Advent and fourth Sunday in Lent.  Gold was also used for Easter and Christmas.  In some places, the best color the parish had was the color for the highest feasts and in other places Lent was observed with an off white or unbleached linen or other rough homespun fabric (the penitence of depriving the eye of color).   In other words, uniformity of color was slow to come.

Rome does not list Advent as a penitential period, although it has always had a penitential character.  Advent is a time of waiting. It entails penance because the object of expectation is not present yet and there is a longing for it that prepares the way like John the Baptist. We turn away from other desires and focus our attention on the coming of Jesus.  Advent endures hardship as a pregnant woman suffers the natural trials of pregnancy in anticipation of the joy of the birth.  Advent then keeps the goal of Christmas in mind: the expectation of Israel, the preparation of John the Baptist, and the prophecy fulfilled by the visits to Mary and Joseph from the Annunciation to the Visitation and finally to Bethlehem.  It is a sort of pilgrimage.

That is why I think Advent deserves its own color.  It does not bother me that the color of blue has traditionally been associated with the Virgin Mary -- she is pretty pivotal in the Advent and Christmas story after all.  We use an indigo blue -- deep and rich that is both subdued and elegant.  I know many will think ill of me but I think it is better to distinguish Advent from Lent in this way.  So, you now have a whole year to complain about blue and about my defense of it.

No comments: