Ash Wednesday  |  Fr Dermot Morrin reflects on the symbolism of the purple colour that characterises the season of Lent.

Purple is an odd colour.  You will not find it in the rainbow. There at one end beyond blue you will find violet.  Purple is a colour of the earth, not the sky.  Mix red with blue pigment and you get it.  We say that this opaque mix of red and blue is the colour of Lent, whereas the official colour of Lent is violet.  But purple does the job very well, and maybe that is because this earthy muddy colour is neither one thing nor another. For the ambiguity is in us, and this season of Lent calls us away from ambiguity to sincerity of heart.

In the first reading, the prophet Joel calls out to us, “Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn (Joel 2:12). ”  In the gospel, Jesus talks about prayer, fasting and almsgiving.   These are not the acts prescribed in the Law, but those extra acts voluntarily undertaken by individuals in private.  The essential point is that he isn’t talking about what you should or shouldn’t do. It is about how these acts of penance, prayer and fasting are to be done.  The ashes, placed on our foreheads today, and the ambiguous earthy colour purple, in whatever shade is chosen, can be powerful reminders to us that if in Lent we would walk with Christ, we must do so in sincerity of heart.

But purple is not far that from the colour of dried blood, that is blood which has been shed.  During the last two weeks of Lent,  an ancient hymn, “Forward our Royal Banners go, ” is sung at evening prayer.  We sing of the cross stained with Christ’s royal blood, “That tree of beauty, tree all fair, chosen such holy limbs to bear, clothed in bright purple robes it stood, the purple of Christ’s royal blood.”   Our Lenten purple can remind us of the sovereignty of Christ, who reigns in triumph, not from a throne, but from the cross and of the love which kept him there.

Lenten purple is not the colour of emperors and kings.  It is no symbol of majesty.  It is as penitential as sackcloth and ashes.  But it is all the more effective because our penance is surely grounded on a recognition of Christ’s majesty and what God has done for us by the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross so that as we enter into the mystery of his death and resurrection, we rediscover ourselves to be what St Peter calls us, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pt 2.9). ”

When I pray, may it be more about someone else’s needs than mine.  If I give help to another, may it be more about him or her and than me.  And if I fast let it be not for me but for the one who died for me on the cross, for he is the one who will truly feed me in this holy season of Lent.  Lent is a season of the heart.  It is the favourable time, when the roots of our faith in Christ can grow deeper in each of us.  Our discipline is about rediscovering the depth and the height of his love and his mercy, the width and the breath. Actually, in the purple of Lent ambiguity can become paradox.  It is this paradox which is always at the heart of our faith and is so clearly visible in this holy season.  When he is crowned king, the crown is made of thorns.  When he utters the cry of dereliction it is also his cry of triumph. His way of death is the path to life.  But here today as we begin Lent, maybe we take to this odd ambiguous purple because we know that, as yet, we are neither one thing nor the other, and maybe that’s why purple works for us. It is become the colour of the repentant Christian heart.

This Lent may our grasp of the great love which brought us to birth, once in the blood of our mother’s womb, and then once again in his blood shed for us upon the cross, be renewed.  An ancient homily for Good Friday puts it this way:  “As a woman feeds her child with her own blood and milk, so too Christ himself continually feeds those whom he has begotten with his own blood.”


Joel 2:12-18  |  2 Cor 5:20–6:2  |  Matt 6:1-6, 16-18

Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.

fr. Dermot Morrin is Superior in the house of St Albert the Great in Edinburgh.