As readers of this blog know, the Mass is “woven from signs and symbols” big and small. Some of the most noticeable symbolic elements are the liturgical colors. I still remember learning about the meanings of the colors as a kid — an introduction to what would become a lifelong fascination.
The Liturgical Year
For the Church, the calendar year is divided into “liturgical seasons.” At this moment we’re in Ordinary Time. In late November, Advent will begin, a penitential season that lasts four weeks and ends on Christmas. For twelve days we rejoice and celebrate the Christmas Season, followed by a bit more Ordinary Time. In the spring comes Lent, which lasts about four weeks and ends on Easter. The Easter Season lasts fifty days, and is followed by the long period of Ordinary Time where we find ourselves today.
Each of these liturgical seasons is marked by a color, which is most noticeable in the priest’s vestments. Other decorations in a church may mirror these colors, too. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (“The Rules”) says:
345. Diversity of color in the sacred vestments has as its purpose to give more effective expression even outwardly whether to the specific character of the mysteries of faith to be celebrated or to a sense of Christian life’s passage through the course of the liturgical year.
In Ordinary Time, the priest wears green. This color represents life, abundance, plants, trees, etc.
Advent and Lent are penitential seasons of preparation for the great feasts that follow. The priest wears purple or violet during these seasons, because this color has a feeling of darkness and sorrow, as well as traditional associations with royalty. Mark’s Passion (Mk 15:17–20) includes this account:
And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.
There is some debate among the mega-nerdy Catholic Blogazoids about whether “Advent Violet” is deeper and more blue, while “Lent Violet” has a more red tone. Art & Liturgy has no official stance on this issue.
Anyway, the third Sundays of Advent and Lent are hopeful looks forward — kind of momentary breaks in the sadness. On these days, it is traditional, but optional, for the priest to wear rose vestments. These are like purple, but a little happier. It is the oldest thing in the book for the priest to start his homily with “These vestments are rose. NOT PINK.” Guaranteed laughs from the crowd, every year. Some priests don’t like to wear pink, but this is dumb. Rose vestments are the coolest of the entire year, with one exception.
That exception is black vestments, which are universally ultra-awesome. They often have a very Batman aesthetic, which is totally rad. These are allowed for funerals and memorial Masses, but sadly not required. Priests also have the option of wearing purple or white vestments for funerals. In my limited funeral experience, white is the most common, because it has friendlier connotations. Let it be known that I would like black vestments to be used at my own funeral, preferably with MEMENTO MORI embroidered across the back.
Here’s a fun fact: In Japan, the color of mourning is not black, as it is here in the U.S., but white. Thus, priests wear white for funeral Masses in Japan.
During the Christmas and Easter seasons, vestments are typically white. In the United States, priests are permitted to wear gold or silver on special feasts and solemnities.
Red is the only liturgical color without a designated season. This color has obvious parallels to both fire and blood, so it’s used for feasts of the Holy Spirit and martyred saints. According to Wikipedia, by ancient Byzantine tradition it is also used for papal funerals, which is a pretty awesome factoid, and explains this photo from the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II.
If you have not yet died from boredom, you may be wondering about blue, given its traditional connection with Our Lady. At this time, blue is not an approved liturgical color in most of the world. There is a legend that, in 1854, the Vatican granted a special privilege to Spain and its colonies allowing the use of blue vestments on Marian feasts, so blue can occasionally be found in places like the Philippines, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. (A&L is unconvinced that this privilege still applies.) I have also learned that blue is officially permitted in modern-day Spain for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8. I am hopeful that, someday in my lifetime, blue vestments will be allowed worldwide for Marian feasts.
In some cases, a parish may not have enough chasubles of the prescribed color to accommodate, say, a large number of concelebrants. In cases of necessity like this, concelebrating priests are permitted to wear white chasubles, even if the main celebrant is wearing the correct color. If exceptional cases when insufficient white chasubles are available, priests can wear a stole only.
Interestingly, the Church never says anywhere, “It’s really important for priests to wear a chasuble, so just wear any color available, even if it’s not the right one at all.” This gives a good idea of the importance the Church places on something as basic as colors, and what they can teach us about sacred time and liturgical living.
All vestments in this post, unless otherwise noted, are part of the permanent collection of Granda Liturgical Arts.