Signs of Lent
How can you tell that we are in the season of Lent? What are the signs?
There are two types of signs: external signs (those you can perceive in the world with your senses) and internal signs (those you can perceive inside yourself with your heart and soul).
So let’s start with the external signs of Lent. There are two primary signs in worship. The first is for the eyes: you can see that we are in the Lent by the colors in the sanctuary—purple is the color of Lent. The second sign is for the ears: you can hear that we are in Lent because we stop saying a certain word: alleluia or hallelujah (which means “praise the Lord” in Hebrew). We’ll talk more about both of these external signs of Lent and the meaning behind them shortly.
But let’s not forget the internal signs of Lent—the signs in your own heart and soul. These will depend on how you have been keeping Lent (we talked about this in the last episode). Maybe you have chosen a new habit or practice. (I’m reading a religious poem a day—from The Word in the Wilderness by Malcolm Guite. And I am loving it!). Or maybe you’ve chosen to stop doing something, or to start doing something. Whatever you’ve done (or not done) to observe Lent, I hope that you’ve had a chance to focus on Jesus and his life through the Scriptures, and to connect with Jesus through prayer. Lent is a walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, after all (and more on that subject in the next episode).
Scripture and Tradition
Let’s get back to those external signs of Lent: the color purple and the absence of the word “alleluia.” In the 12th century, the future Pope Innocent III, in De sacro altaris mysterio, proposed a consistent use of specific colors for each season in the church year: white for feast days and celebrations (including Christmas and Easter), blue for Advent, purple for Lent, black for mourning (including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), red for Pentecost, and green for ordinary time (that’s the rest of the year).
Each color has a meaning. White is an ancient color of celebration. In its light you can experience brightness, purity, and energy. White is the color for Easter. And purple is the color for Lent. It’s the color of royalty, of kings. In the ancient world, purple dye was the most expensive and precious of all dyes—only royalty could afford it. It was produced in Syria and Phoenicia by boiling thousands of marine snails (bolinus branderis) in lead vats for days. Although the snails aren’t purple, they excrete a toxic substance (a defense mechanism) that when combined with oxygen produces an intense purple dye known as Tyrian purple (because Tyre is the capital of Phoenicia).
Jesus himself wore purple on Good Friday. Listen to the story of how the Roman soldiers mock Jesus and pretend that he is king:
17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. (Mark 15.17-20)
Kings wear purple cloaks. Therefore purple is a fitting color for the season of Lent.
Next let’s talk about the absence of alleluias: The phrase “Alleluia” or “Hallelujah” (which means “praise the Lord” in Hebrew) is an expression of joy, occurring frequently in the Psalms. “Alleluia” is occurs all the time during the season of Easter. (Can you imagine Easter morning with the Hallelujah chorus?) Yet “alleluia” doesn’t quite fit the spirit of Lent. So in France in the Middle Ages, Christians began a tradition of burying alleluias
during Lent. A banner or board was made with the word “alleluia” written on it, and the “alleluia” was buried in the church yard for the season of Lent—and then dug up on Easter. Children took an active part in this tradition.
So for the season of Lent, we can put our joyful shouts of alleluia to rest. We can bring our sadness, our longing, and our hope as we journey with King Jesus to the cross.
So we’ve talked about the external and internal signs that we are in Lent. And we’ve looked at the two traditions from church history of the color purple and the burying of alleluias, which brings us to the present. What signs of Lent do you notice?
Open your eyes and your ears the next time you worship.
Look at the paraments (the cloth over the communion table, pulpit, and lectern) and the stoles (the cloth pastors wear around their necks, it looks like a long, flat scarf). Our Lenten paraments and stoles are made of burlap, a rough light tan cloth (similar to sackcloth!), with purple crosses and a black crown of thorns.
Also listen for alleluias (in prayers, sermons, music). I think you’ll hear very few, if any.
May these external signs—pointing to King Jesus and his suffering—may these signs be signals to your heart and soul to follow the King to his cross.
Let us pray.
Open our eyes and ears to the signs of Lent,
Help us to notice the color purple,
Help us to hear the absence of “alleluias,” the quiet,
Open our ears, eyes, and hearts to you this Lent,
Help us to perceive the signs of your presence,
As you draw near to us,
And we walk together to Jerusalem,
In the name of the Fathe