The Way of Beauty The Color Purple

The color purple has a regal history, rich in symbolism. In our own country, the Purple Heart carries significance beyond the present, for it is awarded to those men and women in the Military who have been wounded or killed in battle. Their courage was ‘grace under fire.’ Since the first award given in 1932, almost 2 million service men and women have been honored with the Purple Heart.

As Lent begins, the color purple, rich in symbolism, assumes center stage in the Church’s liturgical life.

Purple Dye Becomes Royal Purple

The color purple was first discovered on walls of caves in prehistoric art dating from between 16,000 and 25,000 B.C. From around 1,500 B.C. in the region of Tyre and Sidon (present-day Lebanon), mollusks and in particular the sea snail, were the source of the dye, named Tyrian purple. The color gave off a deep, rich luster whose sheen was resistant to weather events. Because it was rare, valuable, and costly, the color became the symbol of royalty. Thus, royal purple, as it came to be known, was identified with the wardrobe and furnishings of kings and queens.

Just how rare, valuable, and costly was purple dye? It was made from a juice found in minute quantities in shellfish. It took thousands of crustaceans to make the dye for a yard or two of purple cloth. About 10 years ago, it was determined that 12,000 mollusks are needed to make 1.4 ounces of dye, just enough to dye a handkerchief. And it takes 40,000 mollusks to make 1 teaspoon of Tyrian purple-dye, the cost of which is approximately $8,000.
When Empresses gave birth in their Purple Chamber, the infant-Emperors born there were “born to the purple” to distinguish them from those rulers who has won or seized power through intrigue or force.  In the official portrait of King George VI (1896-1952), the color purple is prominently featured, as it was in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. 

A few weeks ago at the Westminster Dog Show, when the final judge, Betty Regina Leininger entered the arena to greet the dogs and their owners, she stole the show for a few moments. She was wearing a luxurious velvet outfit in deep purple. Royalty, thy name is purple. Like owning a Gucci handbag or wearing a Rolex watch today, donning a purple garment was and still remains a status symbol. Royalty, thy name is purple.

The Royal Purple in the Hebrew Scriptures

It should not be surprising to read that royal purple is found throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Moses is told to make the tabernacle with 10 curtains of fine twisted linen and blue, purple, and crimson yarns (Ex 26:1). In Numbers 4:13, a purple cloth was spread over the altar . . . .” In Proverbs 3:22, “the ideal woman makes bed coverings for herself, and her clothing is fine linen and purple.”  King Solomon ordered purple fabrics to decorate the Temple of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 3:14).

Praying the Royal Psalms

The Royal Psalms present the image of Israel’s king, the image of the ruler chosen and blessed by God. They anticipate the royal lineage of Jesus from the House of David. Some of these Royal Psalms are:  Psalms 2, 20, 21, 45, 72, 144. In his book, Praying the Psalms, the Protestant Old Testament scholar, Walter Bruggermann places before the Christian a twofold approach in praying the psalms: What does the psalm say in itself? And, what does the individual Christian bring to the psalms out of one’s lived experience? How does the Christian respond to what a psalm says in itself?

The Royal Purple in the New Testament

The royal purple was worn by prominent figures mentioned in the Gospels. One such person is the rich man Lazarus “who used to dress in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” (Lk 16-19).

St. Paul praises the devout woman, Lydia, a Gentile and a rich merchant, who engaged in the purple-dye trade and was sold purple-dye, purple cloth, and purple robes. She came from Thyatira, a town well-known for making purple cloth. The Church considers her the patron saint of fine fabrics (Acts 16:14-15).

The Royal Purple Mocked

All these preliminary anecdotes lead up to the Gospel events of Jesus standing trial. He was being ridiculed by the Roman leaders. Herod has Jesus stripped and dressed up in a purple cloak with thorns twisted into a crown and placed on his head. The imperial robe was Herod’s jibe at Jesus’ royal claim (Mt 27:29; Mk 15:17; Jn 19:1-2). Jesus, the Lord of All, was ridiculed as another one of those kings of the Jews. In Jesus’ case, the purple was a metaphor for royalty: Here the King of kings would be made to suffer. The royal purple and redemptive love went hand in hand.

Lent: a Time to Wear the Royal Purple

Lent summons the disciples of Jesus to don the color purple and walk with him along the royal road to the Cross. Why call it the royal road when on the natural plane, suffering bears little resemblance to royalty. It must be avoided, or masochism is near. Of itself, the cross wears us down, does violence to the person, as it did for Jesus.  But when love accompanies suffering, the burden is lighter. The dark road is transformed into a light whose path leads to resurrection.

The suffering Christ is always near to our brothers and sisters who suffer simply because of their faith.

On Good Friday, the most solemn day of the liturgical year, a hushed Christian world ponders Christ’s death expressed in many texts, one of which proclaims: “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore.” As the verse is chanted three times, this cross, shrouded in purple, is then uncovered for all to see and venerate.

Human logic recoils at this proclamation. Yet, despite setbacks and in the face of despair, it gives us hope, a Christian hope that is possible only in the light of redemptive love. For Jesus suffers with us.

The great Spanish mystic theologian and poet, St. John of the Cross (d 1591), couches the mystery of the redemption in the language of love, beauty, and life:

“Now that the time had come
when it would be good
 to ransom the bride
serving under the hard yoke
of that law
which Moses had given her,
the Father, with tender love,
spoke in this way:
‘Now you see, Son, that your bride
was made in your image,
and so far as she is like you
she will suit you well;
yet she is different, in her flesh,
which your simple being does not have.’

In perfect love
this law holds:
that the lover become
like the one he loves;
 for the greater their likeness
the greater their delight.
Surely your bride’s delight
would greatly increase
were she to see you like her,
in her own flesh.

‘My will is yours,’
the Son replied,
“and my glory is that you will be mine.
I will go and tell the world,
spreading the word
of your beauty and sweetness
and of your sovereignty
I will go and seek my Bride
And take upon Myself
Her weariness and labors
In which she suffers so;
And that she may have life
I will die for her,
And, lifting her out of that deep,
I will restore her to You.’”

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross

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