Bombed out churches. Imperious monuments. Golden palaces. Now stained glass windows…
I’m finally home from a summer of travels, but I’m still processing the significance of the sights that I took in across Germany and France. So much of a people’s worldview can be discerned by what they build to last long after they are gone. These cathedrals and monuments, paintings and palaces still speak on behalf of their long-dead creators, their messages either ringing true through the centuries or being discredited by the passage of time.
Last week as I stood gazing at the medieval windows of Notre Dame, I was struck not only by what was present but by what was missing. Our guide had already pointed out the stunning imagery of the north rose window, its intricate designs all depicting scenes from the Old Testament that would later be fulfilled in the New. The effect of the light shining through the multi-colored scenes was a stunning purple, intended to communicate a sense of anticipation and forward movement.
But when I turned to look at the south rose window, the one depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the early church, I was surprised to notice that it lacked the same purple hue. The glorious fulfillment of the Old Testament was there, with the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) sitting on the shoulders of the four great prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and scenes from Christ’s miracles, death, resurrection, and enthronement. But the sense of future anticipation was missing.
…singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth.
I can’t help but feel that the purple is missing from our worldview, too. We are well trained to look back and celebrate the story of what God has done in the past, but we don’t know how to look forward and see that we are participating in the story of what He will due in the future. Without a clear vision of where our story is heading, we lack the direction and the motivation to get there.
You will arise and have compassion on Zion… The nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory. For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD: “The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Psalm 102:13-20, 26
The psalmists and the prophets spoke out of incredibly messy situations, pointing to a future reality in which God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. The afflicted man could cry out the depths of his soul’s current anguish and in the same breath describe the heights of God’s future deliverance. The disheartened prophet could talk about the seeming dead-end of hope while still claiming the certainty of God’s promise to make all things new.
How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?
“For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. …
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:3,14; 3:17-18
The saints of the Old Testament could endure and navigate incredibly troubling situations because they could see how their story was leading to something better. Of course that hope wasn’t always easy to hold onto. Faith never comes easy, especially when it is severely tested. But their patient endurance paid off when the Messiah finally came and made good on a lot of what God had promised.
But what about all the mess that still remains? Why don’t we see worshipping nations and prostrate kings, all declaring the glories of our God? What happened to the end of oppression and the coming of God’s compassionate, just reign? We live in a world where terrorism and sex-trafficking abound, where impaired bodies and broken hearts define our existence.
We can anticipate our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where life-giving streams and healing leaves apply to everything that’s broken in our world.
We cling to the fact that somehow Jesus’ death and resurrection is supposed to relate to all this, but how? The Old Testament holds out hope that the earth will be restored, and yet the only hope we can point to is the salvation of our souls. No wonder we segregate our lives, singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth. Our only hope is eventual escape-by-death.
We are missing the purple.
Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98:1, 7-9
If what God has done in history is the full extent of the good news, then we really do have little to look forward to (and all those Old Testament promises were grossly over-stated.) But the fact is that our waiting, and His story, are far from over.
We are still anticipating the New Creation, that time when God will bring heaven and earth together in a glorious union. And we are anticipating our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where garden and city will combine in a Christ-centered utopia with life-giving streams and healing leaves that apply to everything that’s broken in our world.
And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”
They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. …All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
Revelation 5:9; 15:2-4
Jesus told us to watch and work towards it. John warned us that it would take a great amount of patient endurance to finally reach it. But the day will come when we pick up the songs of the psalmists and prophets and sing them with a new spin: past tense.
If I were to create a stained glass window depicting the world as I see it, I’m afraid it would involve plenty of messy, unpleasant scenes. But as God grants me a developing eyesight of faith, I see a hope-filled hue of purple shining through the shades of pain.
What are the colors in your worldview window?
3 thoughts on “Missing Purple”
Well said! I really like your use of purple as a symbol; I would never have thought to do that. It’s as if we look at passages such as Rom 8:16-25, 2 Cor 3:18, 5:11–21, and Phil 2:12–13, and think that we’re doing them all, or that they will happen in the eschaton (or perhaps tribulation?).
A few months ago I attended a Veritas Forum featuring N.T. Wright and Peter Thiel, two people very interested in our future and what we are, or are not, doing and hoping for it. Wright believes that passages such as Rom 8:16–25 apply to us, and that we are expected to deeply participate with God in reconciling the creation to him. Thiel believes we Americans are currently in the state of “indeterministic optimism”: we believe the future will be better than now, but we don’t know how. (His reference is Silicon Valley folks, so he isn’t weighting the kind of suffering you’ve seen first-hand as highly. My focus here is on the “indeterministic” component.)
It might be worth noting the failed attempts to employ purple, by the way. For example, we have the Church’s union with the State via Constantine, John Calvin’s burning alive of Michael Servetus, the Inquisition, etc. There is a kind of purple which Christians have done, to pretty terrifying ends. Perhaps God intentionally removed our access to it until we learn what true purple looks like? I’m thinking Mt 20:20–28 and Jn 13:1–20. If one accepts what really drives Jesus’ points in those passages, one might start to see the import of what Romano Guardini said in The End of the Modern World:
Guardini discipled Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, and this book was cited eight times in the recent encyclical Laudato Si’. He was known for resisting the authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church, and I think it’s because he figured out what God’s power—which is foolishness to the world—really looks like. God’s purple is entirely different from the world’s purple.
P.S. I think you mean “do” instead of “due”. 🙂
Excellent interaction and insights, Luke. I love your point about misguided attempts at “purple” and God’s kind of purple. It is enough to give me pause, but I think at the core of these oppressive systems is the wrong assumption that because God intends us to be a part of bringing His kingdom on earth, we are therefore responsible to make it happen. Any time that line gets blurred, people resort to power, manipulation, and oppression in their frustrated attempts to do what only God can.
Tom Wright has been very influential in my thinking about New Creation. We laugh that all roads seem to lead to Rom. 8, but it’s really true.
Good to hear from you after so long!
Yes, how the reconciliation of creation to God happens, Romans 8-style, is the question. Is it done by one person dominating another, such that might makes right? Or is it some other way, perhaps which would reify that “weakness” and “foolishness” and “folly” which Paul talks about in the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians?
One way I look at the “quest for utopia” is who gets stomped on in the way to its realization. We have the blood of the Thirty Years War, the French Revolution, Naziism, Stalinism, and Maoism which says, “Other people!” On the other hand, we have Jesus’ blood which says: “Me!” I don’t think that the placement of Rom 8:16–17 was incidental. How can we suffer with Christ, unless we suffer in the same way—for good instead of evil? And yet stuff like the lyrics “Jesus paid it all” makes it seem like such suffering is a thing of the past.
I like the description of God’s purple we find in Eph 1:18–23: “the immeasurable greatness of his power …” is resurrection. Bringing to life of that which was dead, that which was beyond hope. We justify violence, oppression, and failure to effectively help on the basis that it’s just not possible to do it any other way. God’s response is to dispute this, and we laugh at him for doing so, Sarah-style.
It’s just not clear that we understand this stuff very well, these days. I’m betting you have a pretty good grasp (especially in comparison!), given your experiences. Something I struggle with a lot these days is even imagining how the Way described in the New Testament is possible. I refuse those shallow, self-serving readings which say that they describe a mix of (i) what we’ve already obtained; (ii) what we’ll never obtain until the eschaton.
P.S. Thanks for the kind word; I’ve been having a bit of a rough time. Part of the reason is actually that so few people seem to actually believe what you write here; pushing forward alone is very hard. Now, I’m less alone since you publish things like this, but I’m sure you know the difference between anonymous letter-writing and going through life with others who share similar vision. I’ll take what I can get, but it’s hard.