The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
Purple – is fashionable twice –
This season of the year,
And when a soul perceives itself
To be an Emperor.
Emily Dickinson penned those words 140 years ago. In a brief span of phrases she was able to express a wonderful insight. She capably captured the irony that so often is lost because of its familiarity.
We anticipate the birth of a king in Advent and our hope sets the colour. Only years later would the cloth of mockery cloak the shoulders of the King of the Jews...
After the sentencing, the soldiers led Jesus into the courtyard and clothed him in a purple cloak. They twisted some thorns into a crown, and they put it on him. They then began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” The sarcasm of the soldiers added humiliation to the accomplished denigration of the prisoner in their custody. A cloth of purple cloaked the object of their abuse.
This season of the year there is no lack of purple threads adorning clergy and churches, wrapping our worship in cloth and ribbons of fabric coloured in fashion. We know the season by the turning of the cloth and the year is marked in passing.
But purple is fashionable twice.
Monarchical models of both royalty and the episcopate carry the weight of purple, heavily. Those perceiving themselves in this role know the weight of such cloth. They know the irony of the colour; if not the humiliation then they come close to humility. Cloth of purple cloaks and what it hides from view speaks of Jesus’ closeness to broken humanity – sinful humanity.
Dickinson noted that purple is fashionable, but only twice.
In other respects, purple is unfashionable.
Exhausted, beaten, bruised, Jesus had known not only the jeers of his captors but their whip as well. The thin covering reserved for royalty hid welts and bruises bloodied and purple from the flogging. He knew the proud flesh accompanying his beating and would wince at the weight of threads bearing down in ridicule. No healing bandages these!
Abuse has sought to cover wounds in every generation.
And Jesus’ experience draws divine healing close to victims of abuse in each one.
You may be familiar with such abuse. Perhaps your mother knew such abuse, or possibly your grandmother. Your aunt may have been a family secret, or a cousin, or a niece. Perhaps your sister knows proud flesh, or your daughter, or maybe even yourself. The coloured threads aren’t always purple that are used to cover arms and legs and shoulders. But we have seen sleeves and high necks and slacks hide purple flesh from judging eyes. False modesty poses for denial. The colour of cloth knows no season and silence in the church is a conspiracy that hides the victim and protects the abuser.
Victim and abuser meet on Good Friday. They meet in the suffering and tears of Jesus as he speaks, briefly, to the women of Jerusalem. Familiar purple on human skin, swollen and smeared with blood reminds unnamed women of how close Jesus came to their domestic experience.
Mindful of Jesus’ anguish, Monarch and Bishop cannot help but know the abusive weight of their cloth. Ignored abuse weighs heavily in the purple stripes worn around the necks of Priest and Deacon. The silence of countless scores of victims of domestic abuse weighs heavily on altars across the Church.
As for me, I wear a purple ribbon on the lapel of my coat. I picked it up a few years ago at Sobey’s in my last parish. At the checkout I noticed a small container of purple ribbons each with a small brass safety pin. Raise awareness of domestic abuse was an unobtrusive sign beside the ribbons.
That was in December, in the season of Advent and its primary impetus was the horrific murders at the École Polytechnique de Montréal. The deaths of those women have served to heighten our awareness of abuse. In its extremity, it reminds us of unacceptable abuse in all forms.
When I wear my ribbon I find some people are curious about it, and ask why I wear it. Their reaction comes as a surprise to me. If the ribbon were for the defeat of breast cancer, they would concur and join me in my campaign. If the ribbon were for gay rights, they would be prepared to be judgmental and damning. But as the ribbon reminds us of the purple stripes of abuse, a reminder perhaps closer to us than we are prepared to admit, the conversation quickly and awkwardly falls into silence.
In that uncomfortable silence we all stand close, witnesses to Jesus’ redemptive suffering that brings healing to the abused and redemption to the perpetrator. In the very midst of the suffering we have good news to find!
Copyright © 2004 James T. Irvine