Lydia: Patron Saint of Purple … and Piss
January 27, 2020 – Holy Feasts for a Fragile Planet #2
by David R. Weiss
Lydia, whose feast day is January 27, stands at the edge of the biblical story, appearing only in Acts 16:13-15. There all we learn is that she traded in purple cloth, headed a household, heard Paul preach, and then chose to be baptized and to offer Paul and his companions hospitality for a couple of days.
She’s remembered (blessed with a feast day, no less) as the first European convert to Christianity (she meets Paul in Thyatira, located in modern-day Turkey). And as a woman of means. Purple cloth was made using a costly dye extracted from sea snails. It was a status symbol for the elite, so commentators have traditionally assumed that Lydia herself was a wealthy merchant. We’ll likely never know for sure, but there are reasons to question this assumption.
Her name, Lydia, although not unknown as a Greek personal name, is unusual because it comes from a place named Lydia—and usually only slaves were named after places. Literally, her name means simply, “the woman from Lydia.” There were doubtless many slaves whose identity in the Roman world was simply that: the woman from Lydia.
Moreover, there were two sources of purple dye in the ancient world. Besides the expensive dye made from snails, another source was the root of the madder plant, a river plant common in the region of Thyatira. This plant-based dye produced a much cheaper purple cloth, a bit like the “knock-off” brands available today that imitate designer lines of clothing. But making dye from these plants was a hard and dirty process. Extracting the dye and treating the cloth involved repeatedly soaking it in vats of animal urine—and was so foul smelling that dye-workers were required to work outside the city limits … which is exactly where Paul met Lydia: in Thyatira, along the river, “outside the city gate.” (Acts 16:13)
Thyatira was known for its network of artisan guilds, including one that used slave labor to produce cheap purple cloth. Many slaves, if they managed to gain their freedom, continued to use their trade skills to eke out a living. Trained within a guild system, and united by their common skill—and their common past as slaves—they set-up up their own “houses” and traveled around the region making and trading purple cloth. They were not unlike the groups of migrant workers who move through our countryside at harvest season.
Thus, it seems likely that Lydia was a former slave, nameless beyond the region in which she was once owned, now living within a “household” of other former female slaves. She appears to have been a leader within that household of persons-at-the-edge—a household still forced to do their work outside the city gate, and still carrying on their bodies, from elbows to fingertips the smell of that marginal status that would never get washed away.
Why, then, with so much support for this image of Lydia, have we so easily embraced the other one? I suspect because (like those Bible commentators) we prefer the Lydia who’s most like us, who reinforces our notion that Christianity is for “successful” people who move at the center of things. Nevertheless, this Lydia dwells at the edge, beyond the city gate, because she reeks of urine. But that doesn’t stop Paul from sharing the good news about Jesus with her. It doesn’t prevent him from baptizing her—and her entire household. And it doesn’t deter him from accepting the offer of hospitality that she urges upon them.
In fact, the word in Acts that says she “invited” them to stay with her can carry the sense of outright pleading. And the wording of her invitation—“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home”—suggests that she is used to having herself and her home found unworthy. It’s as though she is saying to Paul, “If this baptism you’ve just offered to us is as good as you say it is, then show me that truly we who reek of urine have now been clothed in Christ, and that beyond these waters there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female—but that we are all one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:26-28)
Lydia, patron saint of purple … and piss, stands as a holy reminder that the church was born at the edges, beckoning to those kept outside the city gates. As we move into the era of climate crisis, it will be alongside those kept outside the city gates that we are called most fervently to build community. Alongside those least prepared and least equipped to respond. Whether living in distant countries, uprooted and moving as migrants and refugees (perhaps across our borders), or living in our own most neglected communities (often those of color). These are the households where the church must be found and formed today.
Indeed, in so many ways the comforts and conveniences we must consider relinquishing (or at least severely moderating) in order to quell the worst impacts of climate change are the same comforts and conveniences that require a social-economic structure of haves and have-nots. The fragile precarious off-balance climate that now threatens us has been bought and paid for through an economy and marketplace built on the backs of the poor for generations.
If we hope to live through climate disruption with our humanity intact, it will mean owning our common humanity more dearly than everything else we own. I’m not sure we even know how to begin the cost accounting for that project. But this mostly untold tale of Lydia might offer some wisdom, by suggesting that we will need to immerse ourselves again—and ever more deeply—in the waters of baptism. There, in the gracious welcome of God, we might find the common wealth that can help us build the community that can journey together toward the only future that has room for us at all: one marked more deeply by justice than we have ever dared to think possible.
Lydia is patron saint to the church that must be. And she is inviting—begging—us to dwell with her and her household. Will we?
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Holy Feasts for a Fragile Planet is a series of occasional reflections linking Feast Days and Commemorations of the church year to the work of healing our planet. Find my 2019 collection of “Gospel in Transition” blogs and subscribe to my current writing at www.davidrweiss.com. Contact me at drw59mn(at)gmail.com. Learn how you can support me in my endeavor to do Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.
 On the possibility of Lydia’s low status and on the unattractive aspects of the purple dye trade, see: Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of Earliest Christians: illuminating ancient ways of life, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic), 188; Ivoni Richter Reimer, Women in the Acts of the Apostles: A Feminist Liberation Perspective [trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 1995], 98-105; Richard L. Rohrbaugh, “The Pre-Industrial City in Luke-Acts: Urban Social Relations,” in Jerome Neyrey (ed.), The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991], pp. 125-49, esp. 133-37; Luise Schottroff, “Lydia: A New Quality of Power” in Let the Oppressed Go Free: Feminist Perspectives on the New Testament (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 131-137; F. Scott Spencer, Acts (Readings: a new commentary) Sheffield Academic Press, 1997, 165; and F. Scott Spencer, “Women of ‘the Cloth’ in Acts: Sewing the Word” in Dancing Girls, Loose Ladies, And Women Of The Cloth: The Women In Jesus’ Life (New York: Continuum, 2004), 166-191.