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Lent and its purple colour

Next Sunday is Easter! It marks the end of the 40-day fasting by Christians. Christians all over the world are in the sombre period of Lent. As the human memory needs constant reminder and as people come into the world through birth each passing day and gradually grow to maturity, there is a need that one is reminded of the significance of this period and the neophytes educated. It is therefore pertinent that one knows what this period signifies, the background to the celebration, what is expected of the season and the significance of the colour used during the season.

Lent is an old English word meaning ‘Lengthen’. It was observed during the spring when the days began to get longer.

Christians the world over, especially Catholics and Anglicans, begin the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday with the administration of ashes on the forehead. This year’s season started on the 9th of March, 2011.


How Lent started

What is the origin of Ash Wednesday? One may ask. The answer can be traced back to the biblical tradition of a mourning person covering his hair with ashes, wearing sackcloth, fasting and praying. In our contemporary society, people are marked with ashes on the forehead as a sign of penitence and to show that they are mortal beings. This reminds believers of the fact that to dust they came, and to dust shall they shall return (Gen. 3:19). That is why as the priest applies the ashes on the forehead of the believer, the priest solemnly declares, “Remember, man, you are dust and to the dust shall you return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”


Ashes means death

One of the things ashes symbolize is thus death which is the portion of every person born on earth. The rubbing of the ashes also calls on us to be mindful of our wrong doings which have brought untold hardships to humanity.

Traditionally, Lent is the time of fasting and deep reflection on the meaning of life. It is a period of 40 days which come before Easter in the Christian calendar; it is the period for self-examination and renunciation of one’s sins. By observing the 40-day fast period, Christians imitate Jesus who fasted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights in preparation for his salvific death on the cross.

This period is marked by fasting from food such as meat, fish, fats, eggs and milky food and festivities. In other words, it is a time of abstinence, a time of giving up things that do not promote one’s spiritual well being. Resources accruing from fasting are usually given to the poor because almsgiving is specially promoted during the Lenten period.


Why 40 days?

Number 40 is a very significant number in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Thus in the Judea-Christian scripture - the bible, we have the following references: The flood that destroyed the world lasted 40 days and 40 nights; Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; The Hebrews spent 40 years in the desert before reaching the land promised them by God; Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.


The use of colour

During this period, purple is used by most of the churches that observe Lent. Two reasons are advanced for the use of purple: first, the colour is associated with mourning; it also anticipates the pain and suffering of the Christ on the cross. Second, it is associated with royalty and it signifies the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

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