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I have just finished reading The Color Purple, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book. I never expected it to resonate with the Advent season, which prepares for Christmas. To my surprise I found it provides insights that touch on Christmas’ significance for each of us and for all of creation, our environment.
In brief, Walker’s novel chronicles the stories of several African Americans from a rural county in Mississippi. In different ways they are estranged from one another, from white society, and from the continent that sent them to America. Some have suffered dreadful abuse, while all endure rejection and exploitation. Yet, in the end through a long series of circumstances they all come “home,” several of them to the same house, where together they find acceptance, health, and wholeness, despite (and perhaps through) their past histories. To me several lessons emerge from the book’s pages.
God reaches out to us from ordinary things
God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t… [God] just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
What it do when it pissed off? I ast.
Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back…It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect
(Washington Square Press edition, p. 178)
Walker reminds us that God is a God of surprises, peeking out at us from flowers, people on the street, or moments of serendipity. God revels in the ordinariness of life, of little things.
God Loves Misfits
While we know God loves everything, The Color Purple makes it clear that God loves misfits, the people who don’t fit. God doesn’t even seem to care much about, according to Walker (and the Gospels, I would say) what we believe or even necessarily how well we follow society’s morals. Rather, God really cares about how much we love everything about us. God forgives tons of shortcomings for those who love greatly.
God’s about Reconciliation and Wholeness
By the end of the book the abusers and the abused live side by side, reconciled to one another while facing the truth of their pasts. What was bruised and wounded has healed. “The wolf dwells with the lamb.” The broken and estranged discover wholeness amidst the peace that accepting truth brings. The God of surprises slowly brings about miracles, changing lives and circumstances. But God doesn’t zap the world, transforming it in a flash of light. Instead, God works organically through the everyday processes of life. This takes time, because systems and interrelationships change slowly. God works in and through the communities of life.
What Happens in Humans Happens Affects All Creation
The one place in the book where creation flourishes is the land surrounding the homesite where horrific abuse sets the stage for the book’s narrative. Late in the book we learn much to our surprise that the perpetrator has undergone a change of heart. Unlike the rest of the impoverished rural county trees, flowers and birds flourish around the original scene of abuse like an Eden in the desert. This contrasts with Africa, where other characters in the book have experienced the devastation of forest and village as British corporate plantations singlemindedly pursue profits. In the midst of worldwide racial and economic exploitation one small Eden shines forth in a rural Mississippi backwater peopled by marginal misfits. When people cooperate with their personal and communal transformation, creation rejoices.
The Purple of Advent
Ironically (or maybe not) in the Roman Catholic church their priests wear purple vestments during the Advent season to remind worshipers of their need for transformation. We all might use that color to remind us that Christmas has little to do with pretty packages and tinsel, and only somewhat with the good feelings of a newborn babe’s arrival. It has all to do with a God of the ordinary who surprises us if we notice. Purple tells us that God loves us so much that God works through the seemingly ordinary event of a birth to a poor, backwater family to begin a process of reconciling and healing all of creation. It encourages us to perceive the hand of God working organically in the world around us and to cooperate with heart and mind in that process. It encourages us to wake up and to rejoice in the gift that already waits at our door. May we all do so.
Have a blessed Advent.
Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South