Originally posted Feb. 20, 2013, at ELCA Southeastern Synod Blog. Republished with permission of the author.
February marks the beginning of the purple season of Lent. In Jesus’ time, purple was the color of rulers and the ruling class. A fashion statement? Not really. It was a status symbol because purple dye was difficult to come by and extremely expensive. It was made only in the small Mediterranean kingdom called Phoenica (which also gave us the alphabet and the English word “phoenetic”) from the cast-off shells of tiny sea creatures, which had to be crushed and processed to produce the dye.
Wearing purple was the modern-day equivalent of wearing a Rolex or driving a Lamborghini in a developing country. It was the color of kings, which is why the crowds used purple cloth when mocking Jesus on the cross: “And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him.” (Mark 15:17) Draping the symbolic color of wealth, power and opulence on Jesus during this act of radical humility was meant cruelly but has become a powerful symbol of repentance for Christians today. Jesus, who could have had anything and everything, chose the cross and calls us to do the same.
Over the years, a variety of traditions have developed to mark the beginning of Lent. In the German American tradition, fastnachts are always eaten on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. They are a type of doughnut that, before the age of processed foods, conveniently used up all the fat and sugar in the house to make way for the fast. How typically German to have developed a holiday for the practical purpose of cleaning out the pantry!
The French tradition, on the other hand, gave us Mardi Gras. What began as a joyful, boisterous and satirical religious holiday in Europe has evolved into one of the stranger tourist attractions America has to offer. Not only purple, but gold and green seem to take over New Orleans, and an orgy of excess has become a national pastime. Participants seem to have forgotten, however, about the fasting that is supposed to follow. Although they may sustain a pretty serious hangover on Ash Wednesday, it is unlikely that they are using the opportunity to reflect on Christ’s suffering on the cross.
While it is easy to shake our heads at these hearty partiers and feel morally superior, the truth is that we live in a Mardi Gras culture year-round and nationwide. Excess is not just tolerated but encouraged for the sake of a vibrant economy. We blithely waste natural resources and food, buy more stuff to meet needs that advertisers have invented for us, and spend hours upon hours distracting ourselves with entertainment media (interspersed with advertisers convincing us we need their products). Lent is a time to strip down our lives, regain perspective in a culture where excess is taken for granted, and give God space to help us grapple with our real needs and the needs of others. We do this both individually and together as a faith community.
I have been reading a book titled “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess” by Christian author Jen Hatmaker. She is an escapee of prosperity-gospel-style, evangelical Christianity, who, with her husband, has started a church oriented on social justice. She tried an experiment (motivated by repentance) of choosing a different thing to fast from each month for seven months. For example, for one month she only ate seven different foods, another she took on a media fast (giving up seven types of media distractions), and another she gave away seven items per day for a month. I have garnered enough courage to try it on a weekly scale as my Lenten discipline.
At Cross of Life Lutheran Church, Roswell, Ga., we will mark Lent by subduing the praise-centered parts of our worship services, by gathering on Wednesday evenings for a simple supper and a reflective Taizé service, and by journeying to the cross together during Holy Week. With the help of prayer and God’s grace, maybe we will start to see the contrast between the life our God wants for us and the life our free market wants from us. Maybe wedging open that small gap can help us understand the radical love that drove our God to give us everything on the cross.
Find a link to Mary Houck’s entry at ELCA Southeastern Synod Blog at Lutheran Blogs.