Why purple is the colour of Lent

Sunday February 28 2021
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Bishop Robert Muhiirwa of Fort Portal Catholic diocese wears purple on Ash Wednesday at Virika cathedral in Fort Portal City. Photo | Alex Ashaba

By Alex Ashaba

During the penitential season of Lent, it has become a custom for priests of the Roman Rite to wear vestments of the colour violet. This is a tradition that was gradually adopted, as initially priests only wore white.

Royalty
In the ancient world the colour violet (often called “purple” in English) was associated with royalty. As History.com explains, to make the colour purple, “dye-makers had to crack open the snail’s shell, extract a purple-producing mucus and expose it to sunlight for a precise amount of time. It took as many as 250,000 mollusks to yield just one ounce of usable dye, but the result was a vibrant and long-lasting shade of purple.”

This resulted in kings, such as the Roman emperors, as well as the Persian king Cyrus, choosing purple as their primary colour of clothing.

The Rev Fr Douglas Wako of Fort Portal Catholic Diocese, says according to general instruction to the Roman Missal number 345, there is diversity of colours in the sacred vestments and has its purpose to give more effective expression to the specific character of the mysteries of faith to be celebrated.

He says purple in Roman Catholic Church is used in the advent and Lent seasons.
“Purple signifies the mysteries we are celebrating as a church and during Lent we are reflecting on issues of repentance and passion of Jesus Christ,” Fr  Wako says.

Crucifixion
The clergyman notes that it is remembered that during his passion (Jesus) was dressed in a purple robe. This robe belonged to Herod and it was the most expensive colour available in the Roman Empire.

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“At that time, people who were wearing purple were royal and they were the only ones who could afford it,” says Fr Wako, adding, “The mocking gesture of dressing Jesus the King of Kings in a purple robe was indicative of his royal dignity.”

When the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus before his crucifixion, they “clothed him in a purple cloak, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on him” (Mark 15:17). Then Pilate showed Jesus to the crowd, saying, “what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:12).

From this horrific scene, purple became associated with Jesus’ Passion and death. Christians then saw purple as a reminder of Jesus’ Passion, with the colour itself a call to repentance for sin.

Humility
The Bishop Reuben Kisembo of Ruwenzori Diocese, says during lent season they put on purple colour because of its reflection of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“It reflects humility, obedience to God and it originated from the Old Testament and Jewish culture,” Bishop Kisembo said.

Reconciliation
The diocesan pastoral coordinator of Fort Portal Catholic Diocese Fr Charles Oyo, also adds that  purple symbolises time for penance that Christians are reconciling with the Lord.
“Purple is the colour of Lent and it symbolises repentance.”

Fr Oyo also says purple dye was a precious commodity and it was painstakingly manufactured and because of the laborious process to extract purple dye, purple cloth was expensive and worn by royalty and nobility, often the only people who could afford it.

“Kings and emperors would dress entirely in purple to emphasise their wealth and power. Therefore, dressing Christ in a purple robe was a symbolic act, even if intended to disrespect him,” Fr Oyo says.
Fr Oyo also explains that purple reminds us that we too have disrespected Christ through our sins and we are called to repent and ask forgiveness.

Purple is a deep, almost night-like colour that focuses our attention on the fasting and repentance associated with the Lenten season.

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