As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, my theme is the borrowed title of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple. Because I do believe that “it pisses God off if you pass by the color purple and don’t even notice,” I chose a text that I know no one ever preaches for Lent, if at all: Numbers 4:13 They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it.
Thomas Gray said that purple is ‘the light of love.’ For William Shakespeare purple is ‘the color of love’s wound’ and the ‘testament of a bleeding war.’ According to John Milton ‘Bacchus from the purple grape first crushed the sweet poison of misused wine.’ John Keats found in purple the ‘riot of sudden thoughts.’ Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven was accompanied by ‘the silken, sad rustling of each purple curtain.’ Gelett Burgess ‘never saw a purple cow.’ Alfred Lord Tennyson mused on the ‘pilots of the purple twilight’ as Emily Dickinson saw the setting sun ‘blazing in gold and quenching in purple.’ Katharine Lee Bates saw ‘purple mountains’ majesty.’ Jimi Hendrix had a ‘purple haze in his brain.’
Purple is also the color of deep bruises. Purple is the color of angry skin and dried blood. Purple is the color of the shrunken lips and swollen tongues of lynched women and men. Purple is the color of the excruciating pain of death by crucifixion. Purple is expensive. At one time, purple dye was ground out of the tiny bodies of snails. For the snails, being purple was a death sentence.
In the Ancient Near East, the color purple came from the murex snail; a little over 6 pounds of snail glands, that’s roughly 12,000 snails, were needed to dye one pound of wool. In ancient Israel purple was associated with aristocracy and especially with royalty. Purple was used in the garments of the high priest, who was decked out in royal splendor from the first rustic robe in the wilderness to the Maccabean regalia of the rededicated Temple between the times of the Two Testaments. And, the drapery of the Tabernacle, from the external walls of fabric to the most interior double curtain that veiled the residence of the I AM, were also purple. Exodus 26:1 – ‘you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them… You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework.’
Where did all of this purple come from in the wilderness? Exodus 35:25-26 records, ‘All the wise-hearted women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; all the women whose hearts were elevated in wisdom used their skill and spun the goats’ hair.’ The people who were at one time not a people, left slavery with nothing, yet arrived in the wilderness with the treasures of Egypt heaped upon them in hopes that they would intercede with their god for dying first-born not covered by the purple clotted blood of a lamb. The women of Israel fashioned all of this royal purple into vestments for the seen things of their unseen God. They were called wise of heart because the ancients did not separate craftsmanship or craftswomanship from intellectual ability, however most translators reduce them to merely skillful. These folk had nothing, and when faced with an embarrassment of riches gave it all back to God who had just enriched them, and whom they believed would continue to enrich them. They didn’t hoard their purple; they gave it to God.
The wilderness-wandering women and their meandering men, along with their circumlocuting children, were on a pilgrimage. The Book of Numbers is a continuation of the pilgrimage from privation to promise begun in what Bob Marley called the Exodus movement of Jah-people. Our pericope begins with the people of God on the move in verse 5. After moments of sweet rest, however long and however frequent, the congregation of Israel would be summoned to resume their journey by the motion of the theophoric God concealed in the pillars of smoke and fire. In response to the move of God the priestly families prepared the sacred space of the sanctuary and its sacred objects for the next leg of the journey. God provided detailed instructions on how to move God when moving with God – for God was understood to be alternately enthroned and riding astride on the chariot-throne of the Sacred Coffer of Divine-Human Commitment, the Ark of the Covenant.
‘They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it.’ The Ark and the altar of sacrifice were dressed in pure purple clothes. Of all of the sacred objects in the sanctuary only these two rated purple. They framed the most immediate manifestations of the Presence of God. The Ark as the early parallel to the heavenly throne and the altar of sacrifice as the place where God heard prayer. The veil and the screening curtain protected humanity from the presence of God. The color purple signaled the presence of the Holy in the objects dressed in royal robes. Holiness is infectious, not just infectious, but contagious, and contagion is lethal.
No one could see the face of God and live. No one could even gaze upon the places where God’s presence had been known to dwell. The people of Israel needed to be protected from the presence of their Holy, wholly consuming God. No mortal could stand in the presence of God and live. One day a year the high priest would gamble with his life and enter the presence of God to plead for his people, but even then he was screened from gazing on God by the veil of incense between them. God is holy, consuming all that is unholy in holy fire that has no equal on this earth. We who are but dust are reduced to ashes in the face of that all-consuming fire. We cannot stand the gaze of God. All that we are, all that we have done, all that has been done to us, all that we want to do is exposed in the heat of God’s nearness. All of our motives and intentions melt away like wax from a wick beneath the inscrutable gaze of the Eternal. God sees us for who we are, and we are undone in the sight of God.
Even though God was leading the Israelite pilgrims to the land of promise in the form of a pillar, the people knew that the holiness of God had in fact not left the building. They had to pack up God’s stuff that had been permeated by God’s presence and therefore still bore traces of Godself. I know that I’m skating on the edge of heresy by suggesting that God left a tangible residue, but the holiness of God is so pervasive, so real, that it supercedes the laws of physics as they pertain to particulate matter. The people of Israel, God’s people, were in more danger from the Holy One in their midst than they ever were from all of the ‘-ites’ surrounding them. [Canaanites, Moabites, Hivites, Hittites, Jebusites, Midianites, you know the -ites…] The power of the presence of God is explosive, and the people needed to be protected. So the priests carried the screening curtain before them so that they couldn’t see the Ark and dressed it in that purple veil. And then they draped the altar of sacrifice in its royal purple gown. The people of God led by the Presence of God were on the move. The color purple represented God’s power contained but not restrained.
Our God has not changed. Our God is still holy. Have we forgotten that we risk our very loves by coming into sacred spaces any old way? Or does God still permeate our sanctuaries in such a way as to leave a trace of the Holy Presence? Is God still here? If so, then we ought to be so very careful coming into the presence of God. We ought to prepare ourselves and even this space. We ought to be wrapped not in purple clothes but in the incense of prayer. And when we move, is it at the leading of God? Are we following God? Or are we going off on our own, waiting for God to catch up with us?
Our second point of refection is the ‘Power of the Passage.’ Let me remind you of the power of the passage in Israelite experience. Out of the crucible of Egyptian slavery, economic exploitation, cultural bias, social oppression, political disenfranchisement, torture, brutality, and attempted genocide God brought a rag-tag mob of refugees. God chose them not because they were the most shining example of humanity, or even because they were the worst, but because they were a useful case-in-point to tell a story. Their passage through the Sea of Reeds was their passage from God’s womb to life as a fledgling nation. God was pregnant with the children of Israel and her labor pains were felt throughout the double kingdom of the Upper and Lower Niles. God had ten contractions and everyone in Egypt felt her pain. Mitzrayim, Egypt in Hebrew, means ‘narrow place;’ from that narrow place God pushed her people into a brave new world. James Weldon Johnson once wrote that at the dawn of creation the great God Almighty like a mammy bending over her children knelt down. I want to suggest that God squatted down over the Sea of Reeds and pushed her squalling newborn nation into the waters that would become bloody with the decomposing bodies of the Egyptians.
The indication of the onset of Divine labor was blood in the water. Then came the birth pains, frogs, gnats, flies, the baby was coming. Next came pestilence, boils and hail, the baby was almost here. Last came locusts, darkness and death; the nation of Israel was born. There is power in the passage.
The power of God that delivered the Hebrew children from the Egyptians did not abate at the Sea of Reeds. That power led them through the wilderness of scorching heat, fire snakes, earthquakes, pestilence and rebellion. The power of God would lead them across the Jordan River in the same manner as their birth from the waters of Egypt. Individuals may not enter a second time into their mother’s wombs, but apparently nations can.
The Israelites never knew where they were going on the way to the land to which they knew they were going. They never knew what awaited them. They thought their journey was all about the destination, because they forgot that there is power in the passage. Their wilderness wandering was as much about the journey as it was about the destination. For it was while they were on the way to where they were going that God revealed Godself to them. It was along the way that God fed them. It was on the road to somewhere that God fed and clothed and healed and protected them. It was before they got to where they were going that God instituted a system of worship in which mortal creatures could commune with their eternal Creator. It was in the midst of the passage of the children of Israel from slavery to freedom that God demonstrated what real, faithful, tender, forgiving divine love was.
What is God bringing us through today? As a people? As a nation? As individuals? Where have we come from and where are we going? Do we appreciate the power of the passage of this wilderness journey through patriotism parading as justice, revenge masquerading as righteousness? Do we understand that people of color are still politically disenfranchised as evidenced by the last so-called election? We are in the wilderness in which there is inadequate health insurance, elder care, day care and minimum wages that couldn’t feed families if God did not still provide manna and quails. Yet there is power in the passage, God is with us, and if we follow, we will be led to the other side as a new people. [I wrote this in 2007 and it is still true.]
‘They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it.’ The old ashes were removed for the journey to make room for new sacrifices. The ashes came from the burnt offering, the peace offering or offering of wellbeing, the grain offering, the purification or sin offering, and reparation offerings. The burnt offering – ‘ola – from whence we get the word holocaust, was one which was entirely burnt on the altar and so its smoke and scent were directed toward the heavenly realm, leading to a harmonious relationship between humanity and divinity or simply between different peoples. Offerings of wellbeing include the thanksgiving sacrifice, the vowed sacrifice and the freewill offering. The purification or sin offering both restored the sinner and sanctified people and places in situations that have no relation to sin, for example: new mothers, the person suffering from a disease, the Nazirite who completes a vow, or the installation of a new altar. The basic feature of guilt offering is reparation; unlike other sacrifices, this offering could be converted into a monetary equivalent and simply paid to a debtor.
The ashes from all of these offerings were removed in preparation for new sacrifices. The very last point of reflection is that the color purple symbolizes preparation for penitence. Out with the old, and in with the new. It is time to make new sacrifices and offerings. That is what our Lenten pilgrimage is all about, another year’s journey with the LORD, another opportunity for sacrificial offerings, another opportunity to repent for the sins of the past year.
For what do we have to repent as a people and as individuals? Racism, sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, Islamophobia. If we have broken one part of the revealed law then we have broken all of it. We are all accountable for abused children, abused elders, rape, incest, hungry bellies and lonely souls, religious violence profaning the Name of God. We who were charged as stewards of this creation are responsible for polluting and misusing its resources. We were charged with building a church without spot or wrinkle, a place of prayer where all people will stream to the mountain of God, and we don’t want to let some folk in the door. Not to mention our own spots and wrinkles all over God’s upholstery.
There is another purple cloth in our scriptures. It was hanging in the Temple that Herod built, enlarging Solomon’s Temple. It was protecting the people from the presence of God, reminding those who knew the old ways of wilderness wandering of the power of the passage. And it hung there in preparation, for one day it would be the banner of penitence. It was a Friday afternoon, just about three o’clock. They tell me that the sun’s light failed and the earth was cold and dark. On a hill far away, there stood an old rugged cross, an emblem of suffering and shame. And on that old cross, hung a thin, ragged, naked man, beaten black and blue and even purple. There was strange fruit hanging from that tree on that Friday afternoon. As the Prince of Peace breathed out his spirit, the earth shook and the rocks split open and the veil in the Temple, you know the one – it was the one that was the color purple – the veil in the Temple split in two.