You might not have grown up Lutheran–or you might have grown up Lutheran and never had it explained. Perhaps you have been secretly wondering for years why we switch colors at seemingly random points during the year and throw out words like “Advent,” “Lent,” “Quinquagesima,” and “Fat Tuesday.” It’s because we follow something called the Western Liturgical Calendar.
When Martin Luther began criticizing the Catholic Church in the 1500s, he never desired to split with Rome and the Pope. His hope was that they would reform and return to faithful teaching. When he was excommunicated at the Diet of Worms, Luther still considered himself a Catholic. Many of the early Lutheran Fathers felt much the same way.
So, when Lutheranism had to face life as its own separate branch of the Christian tree, we retained a lot of the traditions of the Catholic Church, so long as they didn’t disagree with Scripture. We kept the Liturgical Calendar. While we stopped praying to the Saints, we kept feast days and holidays that other Protestant denominations dropped. We kept incense, statues, stained glass, and crucifixes. If you go to Europe, most Lutheran parishes are exceedingly elaborate, and are often mistaken by American Lutherans for Catholic Churches. In large parts of Scandinavia, “pastor” is not used; Lutheran priests are addressed as “Father.” And while we no longer fast during the penitential seasons, we do observe Advent and Lent, as well as the liturgical colors that were used in the Roman Catholic Church going back to the Middle Ages.
One of those traditions that was preserved was the use of violet for most of the Sundays in Advent and Lent (rose was used for the third Sunday of both). The two seasons are connected: both comprise periods of hopeful fasting before periods of rejoicing. Advent precedes Christmas, and Lent precedes Holy Week and Easter.
Violet is the color of repentance in the Christian Calendar. Advent, after all, is not only a preparation for Christmas, but also for the Second Coming. In most medieval Catholic parishes, there was a drawing or engraving of Christ as judge, with a sword and lily preceding from Him. On His left side, sinners in Hell, often shown bloodied and tortured. On His right side, saints in heaven. To Luther and others, God was a God of angry judgment. A popular hymn in the Middle Ages was the Dies Irae, proclaiming that “day of wrath and day of judgment.” Violet seemed the natural color for a season preceding Christ’s return in judgment.
So where did blue during Advent come from? My people, maybe some of your people: the Scandinavians and the Finns.
What does it symbolize? Hope.
The first year I moved from Northern California to Chicago, I reached a point in February where I wasn’t sure if the sun was ever going to come out again and thaw the ground. I get that feeling with solar eclipses as well. I logically know that it’s just an overlap, and both the moon and sun will continue on their orbits, just as I know that the snow will thaw. But standing in the thick of it, there’s always a little voice saying “What if things stay like this?”
I’m not sure why the Scandinavian and Finnish churches switched to blue. I’m not even sure if blue symbolized hope when they switched, or if that’s a modern concept.
But I do know that as winter bares its fangs, as the days get shorter and the weather colder, I cling to Hope. Hope that Christ will return and raise the dead. Hope that death, sin, and the devil will be finally destroyed, and for all time. Hope that I can see the God who loved me enough to take on flesh and die for my sins upon the Cross, the One who showed me in His resurrection that there is no fear in death, and the One who has promised to return and create all things anew.
May we have an Advent full of hope in Christ’s coming as a child, in Word and Sacrament, and at the end of all things. And may we have an Advent full of repentance, knowing that God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins for the sake of Christ.