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Why do we wear violet during Lent?

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When it comes to faith, the colors we wear on the outside often reflect how we're feeling on the inside.

Lent isn’t a fashion season like Spring-Summer or Autumn-Winter, when one or more colors are suggested as a trend; it is, however, a very important time of year for Catholics, and the color violet (preferably a dark tone, not pastel) reminds us that we are living 40 days of reflection, penance, and spiritual conversion.

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Jesus was dressed in a purple robe during his Passion as a mockery of his being “the king of the Jews”; since long before his time, purple had been a symbol of royalty. For example, in Exodus, we can read how Moses ordered the tabernacle to be made of “ten sheets woven of fine linen twine and of violet, purple, and scarlet yarn” (Exodus 26:1) and in 2 Chronicles 3:14 we read that Solomon ordered the temple in Jerusalem to be decorated with fabric of the same colors.

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The Church decided to keep the color violet as a symbol, not just of penance and mourning (in anticipation of the crucifixion, and with reference to Jesus), but also as a reminder of the need to confront our own sins, to prepare ourselves spiritually, and to help our neighbors to draw closer to God and his kingdom (conserving in this way the solemn character traditionally assigned to violet). It’s not just a color that is used on special occasions, such as the popular processions honoring “Jesus the Nazarene” during Holy Week throughout the Spanish-speaking world; it’s the color of Lent as a whole.

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Of course, it’s not like we’re being faithful to the liturgical color if we put on a violet miniskirt: the type of cloth and the design of the article of clothing also should reflect the proper sentiments leading up to Easter. Visually, it’s an opportunity to project austerity and simplicity—but wearing it is not an official rule of the Catholic Church. Also, you don’t necessarily have to wear violet for all 40 days of Lent; it can just be a small detail like a bracelet, a handkerchief tied to your purse, or an accessory that simply reminds you of the meaning of this time of year.

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On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday, we get a foretaste of the lifting of the Lenten gloom in the readings and, in many churches, the optional use of rose-colored vestments and altar hangings. Just as the standard Lenten color is violet, not purple, the color for Laetare Sunday is rose, not pink (and especially not a hot pink!). It’s the color of dawn, of the faintest new blossoms, and of promise.

Then on Palm Sunday and Good Friday the violet is replaced by red to symbolize the Passion of the Lord, blood of the martyrs and the strength of the Holy Spirit. On Holy Thursday (recalling the institution of the Eucharist), as at the Easter Vigil and on Easter Sunday, the liturgical color is white or gold, as a sign of life, purity, happiness, and jubilation.

But remember that wearing violet clothing is meaningless if we don’t turn our hearts violet as well. Take advantage of these days to reflect, to make some kind of sacrifice, to help others more, and to see how, in the simplest every-day fashion, you can be not just a better Catholic, but above all, a better person.

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