I have to admit the purple drapes took me by surprise, although they shouldn’t have. Every year on Passion Sunday our parish drapes images of Christ, the altar and tabernacle, the tall candlesticks, the Madonna and Child to the left of the chancel, and even the lectern to the right – they are all draped in deep purple cloths that flow gently to the floor. We are beginning the last two weeks of Lent, called Passiontide, in which we draw closer to the Crucifixion, but see beyond, to the Resurrection.
I was late, having duties in the Sunday School, and as I entered the nave I took a deep breath. At the head of the carpeted aisle, the sanctuary glowed with the purple drapes and the red carpet. The candles flamed, reminding us of victory, the hope of Easter. Even the immense medieval crucifix over the altar, was fully draped, turning a large portion of the red brick to purple. I padded softly up the aisle and knelt alongside my husband, praying my usual opening prayer of thanksgiving for the clergy, the people, and the freedom to worship, as the last few lines of the processional hymn echoed in my ears, sung to the Pange Lingua.
I had much to be thankful for this morning. There were little things, such as the dry respite from the rain so that I could carry the giant attendance board, taken home to re-glue after having come apart, into the Sunday School without it getting wet. I was thankful for having finally remembered the milk for the parish kitchen and the new toys for the children’s prize box, items which I had forgotten the week before.
There were larger things, though, that filled my heart, not least the surprise itself. I thought how the liturgical re-enactment of our faith brought such sudden delight. We told the story, month after month, season after season, the same story of redemption, marking each year in our own span of life. This Lent 2012 was different than last year’s, as it would be different from next year’s Lent. Each day, each hour, each minute were unique moments of choice, moments in which we chose to draw closer to heaven or chose to pull away. The liturgy helps us to face the choosing and to choose.
As I gazed upon the unseen images I reflected, as I often do this time of year, upon a world without Christ, a world in which nothing made any sense. Was American culture drawing closer to such a world? A world of dark rituals and life sacrifice?
The movie Hunger Games, just released, is based on a disturbing premise. Young teen girls fight to the death in a reality TV arena for the entertainment of the public. Surely, this is a world without Christ, without respect for life. I am reminded of cock-fighting, of dog-fighting, of bear-baiting, of Roman gladiators. It is a cruel world of death, of brutalized hearts and souls. And to up the ante, Hunger Games depicts teenage girls, adding a sexual element to the violence.
What has become of us?
But this morning the candles flamed on the purple altar, throwing light on the purple tabernacle. The flaming fire reminds us that Easter dawn draws near, that the sun will rise.
Another movie, October Baby, tells the story of a survivor of abortion, and how valuable her life is, regardless of her handicaps. Curiously the two movies enter our culture at the same moment in time, so that we may compare the dark and light. We may choose.
So the rich and royal purples in the sanctuary pull us into those last days, into the days of Christ the King’s suffering. We are called into reality, into the way things are, and we are told to pay attention.
“Pay attention,” the purples say. So much of what we do in the liturgy demands our attention, calls our hearts and minds to listen, to offer, to love, to enter the story. Bells ring. Sacred words are said over the creatures of bread and wine. Body and blood meet body and blood, and we unite with our creator. We are called by the actions of the liturgy, into the true story. We are called into love itself, into light, into life. We chant, we kneel, we make the Sign of the Cross over our head and hearts. We pay attention.
And occasionally we are caught by surprise, by sudden bursts of purple joy.