Two vaguely related topics, of interest to a somewhat narrow constituency, provoke intense responses each year when Advent comes around. The first might seem trivial. Should vestments and other hangings be purple or blue? The second is perhaps a bit more important. Is Advent a penitential season?


The second question relates to the first because in most churches, purple is used in Lent. In Lent, the Gloria in Excelsis isn’t said or sung, and not one muttered Alleluia escapes one’s mouth, the hymns tend to be mournful and there are no flowers in the church. Of course in Advent there are no flowers in church, the Gloria in Excelsis isn’t sung, but we still utter our Alleluias  with as much enthusiasm as a proper Anglican may muster, except perhaps when taking a shower. For some reason, the question of whether to use blue or purple vestments has become associated with our position on whether Advent is a penitential season or not. Well, actually, I think it possible that the use of blue vestments in Advent may be attributed to Almy. I’ve no idea who gave them the idea. 


Before the English Reformation, there were a number of color schemes in use, depending on which part of the country one lived in. The Sarum Use, named after the great cathedral in Salisbury, used blue in Advent. It is probable that when the 1549 Prayer Book was issued, the Sarum color system and ceremonial, with some adaptions, became the official use for the English Church. However that only had two year’s or so of life, after which the church solved the problem by abolishing almost all ceremonial and all colored vestments except for copes. 


During the Anglo-Catholic revival of the 19th Century, when ceremonial and colored vestments returned, most churches adopted the color schemes used by the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. By the end of that century some ‘ritualists’ decided that to be truly Anglican, ceremonial and vestments should be those that were in use in the first year of King Edward VI: 1547. They studied the illuminations in Medieval service books and came up with a Sarum color scheme. Percy Dearmer championed all things Sarum in his “Parson’s Handbook”. 


The question of whether to shout Alleluia or not was moot until recently because no such acclamation was to be found in the old Prayer Books . Very few parishes in the USA conformed to the Sarum ceremonial and color scheme. It seems passing strange, therefore, to arbitrarily select one of the Sarum colors -blue- for Advent while sticking to the Roman usage throughout the rest of the year. There may be places that use unbleached linen in Lent, but they are few and far between. 


So why blue? It seems to have become the badge of the anti-penitental crowd, and of course of those who like blue but wouldn’t be caught in polite society venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary. So is Advent a penitential season? If it isn’t, why do we omit the Gloria and save on the budget for flowers? To my mind the answer is equivocal. It may not be penitential, as in Lent, but it is certainly penitential in terms of our taking stock of ourselves to prepare to go “even unto Bethlehem” or to meet the King “when he comes in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead.” Yes, Advent has its joyful aspects. Nevertheless while the society in which we live consumes and purchases and parties, Christians stand out as they examine themselves and make themselves as ready as may be to greet the Baby King and the Baby Judge. So I opt for purple.

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