All over the world, millions and millions of Christians know what the color purple means.
More than anything else, it stands for seasons centering on the repentance of sins. Thus, it is the liturgical color for vestments and altar cloths that the truly ancient churches -- think Eastern Orthodoxy and the Church of Rome -- associate with Great Lent and also with the season known as Nativity Lent in the East and Advent in the West.
Of course, in the modern world Nativity Lent/Advent has been crushed by the cultural steamroller of Shopping-Mall Christmas (which already seems to be underway in television advertising). But that's another story, as in the actual cultural War on Christmas (as opposed to you know what).
Purple is also the liturgical color associated with royalty, as in Christ the King. In Western churches -- especially oldline Protestant churches -- most people link this connection with the purple candles in an Advent wreath. United Methodist churches retain some of these traditions through historic links to Anglicanism.
This brings us news-media speculations about why Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton elected to splash purple into their wardrobe when she gave her speech conceding that Donald Trump had won the presidency. Let's start with the top of this U.S. News & World Report take on the topic:
Hillary Clinton conceded the presidential election to Donald Trump on Wednesday in front of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.
Both Clintons made a bold statement with their clothing: Hillary donned a dark gray pantsuit with purple lapels and a purple blouse underneath, and Bill wore a matching purple necktie.
Throughout her campaign, Clinton has often sent a message with her fashion choices, so what did the purple ensemble mean?
Many believe that wearing purple was a show of bipartisanship, a possible call for unity and togetherness in a time of disappointment and political uncertainty.
In Clinton's Methodist faith, purple represents royalty and penitence.
It was also a color of choice for the suffragist movement.
Political unity? That is a reference to the lingo in which states that are neither liberal blue or conservative read are said to be purple. Of course, this means that the Clintons could have been saying, "We were the actual centrists in this fight."
But focus on that reference to Hillary Clinton's Methodist ties. Saying that in "Clinton's Methodist faith, purple represents royalty and penitence" is just "sort of" accurate. It's like saying that Methodists have a tradition of putting up Christmas trees at Christmas or using bread and wine (or grape juice) to symbolize the body and blood of Jesus. That narrow reference rather misses the larger point.
Methodists have that tradition? Or the wider Christian tradition for many centuries?
Meanwhile, that suffragist reference was certainly interesting. I did not know that. I did, however, know about this symbolic reference that was picked up by Vanity Fair:
... Finally, purple is the color of the anti-bullying movement in L.G.B.T.Q. communities.
Other news organizations were even more vague when describing the purple symbolism in this political rite of passage. Take the McClatchy report for example:
... Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton came out, Hillary Clinton in a purple shirt and a blazer with purple lapels and Bill Clinton in a solid purple tie.
Purple is known as a color to encourage unity between the Republican and Democratic parties, which are represented by the colors red and blue, respectively. Purple is also used to denote swing states. ...
Clinton chose to wrap up her presidential run with purple, and the symbolism wasn’t lost on her audience. Some pointed out purple represents spirituality and royalty, as well as bipartisanship.
Generic "spirituality"? Period?
Come on. Were there ZERO Catholics in the newsroom who knew the specific connection to penitence and Lent? There were no liberal Protestants in the reporting and editing process?
Let's look at one more example of this struggle to connect symbols with facts, care of The Los Angeles Times:
Secretary Clinton took to the stage a short time ago wearing what appeared to be a black pantsuit with wide purple peak lapels with a purple silk shirt layered underneath. Purple, of course, has become a symbol of political unity (or at least balance) in a country that that uses “red state” and “blue state” as shorthand for the political divisions between Democrat and Republican. Used here as a contrast color on a black outfit -- black being the traditional color of mourning –- the message was unmistakable: her bid for the White House is over and the country needs to come together not as discrete camps of red or blue but as one wholly combined and commingled purple country.
Purple, we should note, has also long been a color associated with royalty (back in the day it was an exceedingly expensive color to make) and, liturgically speaking (this from my sister the seminarian) it is the color associated with Advent -- the period of reflection, waiting and preparation in many Western churches in the run-up to Christ’s birth.
That's getting closer. However, note the reference to a female seminarian being the source of the information. That might explain the accurate, but secondary, reference to purple being connected to Advent. The more ancient liturgical connection, of course, is to Great and Holy Lent.
Help me out, readers: Have most liberal Protestant churches dropped Lent and/or the purple liturgical traditions that go with it? I know that Episcopalians still use traditional symbols during Lent, but how about others?
In terms of journalism, a few logical search terms and a click of a mouse would have yielded lots of information, such as this Catholic educational reference:
Q. What is the significance of the color purple during Lent? A. The color purple is an additional symbol of penance. The Scriptures tell us that a purple garment was placed on Jesus during his passion as a mockery. It is fitting that the color be maintained during the days in which we focus on our own reality of sin that continues to be a mockery of the love and goodness of God. The color purple and the days of penance themselves will eventually give way to the color white and celebration of Christ’s victory over sin. In humility we acknowledge our sin in penance so that we may share fully in the celebration to come.
All of this raises another question, one that would require access to Hillary and Bill Clinton: What did the color purple mean on this day?
Are we talking about politics or penitence? A confession of sin or a call for political compromise? A nod to LGBTQ causes or a subtle reference to a glass ceiling that remains unbroken?
It's good that some journalists tried to connect the religion dots in this case. However, it helps to get the facts right or, at least, to see the larger religious symbolism. Purple is not a "Methodist" thing. It's an ancient Christian thing.