The use of varied liturgical colors is the result of centuries of lobbying by liturgical arts companies. Priests are now forced to buy six sets of vestments instead of just one.
Now that Lent is behind us and the Easter season is here, we’ve seen purple linens and vestments give way to white and gold. In just a few weeks, our churches will be bedecked in green for Ordinary Time.
Why do we use liturgical colors in the first place? For a religion with such a rich intellectual heritage and deep theological foundations, how is it that something as basic as colors is so integral to the liturgy?
Geoffrey Webb tells us in his book, The Liturgical Altar. In this context, Webb discusses the use of an altar frontal (a linen used to cover the “elevation,” or front of a fixed altar), which is no longer a requirement. Still, the points he makes explain Catholic use of liturgical colors in general:
“The frontal is a means of employing colour to bring out the full meaning of the very beautiful symbolism in that same office of ordination of subdeacons which speaks of ‘the faithful, with whom the Lord is clothed as with costly garments.’
The red frontal, for instance, reveals the victory of the Rex Martyrum [King of Martyrs], realized afresh in yet another of His members. The Church seems to have chosen this means of the robed altar to bring into prominence the truth which has been her greatest inspiration from the first centuries of Christianity . . .
It is difficult to imagine how the Church could present this truth more forcibly than by use of the colored frontal, which changes the whole appearance of the altar. Our Lord, as represented by His consecrated altar, puts on robes of majesty to identify Himself with those in whom His victory has borne fruit; His own purity reproduced again in the white robe of the virgin saint; His own heroic fortitude in the red robe of the martyr: and thereby additional emphasis is given to His invitation to be approached through the intercession of the saint with whose colour the altar is robed.
And when the Robes of Majesty are all removed on Holy Thursday, more is indicated than the removal of His garments. His faithful, His costly garments, His disciples, are all stripped from Him; and His desolation is made the more evident by this complete annihilation of colour.”
Remember that Christ is at once priest, victim, and altar. There is a deep theological importance for each of the many vestments a priest wears for Mass, which we’ll discuss more later. But for now, we can see why the outer vestment, called the chasuble, must be colored to match the liturgical season.