What is the colour you dress yourself in? It matters, doesn’t it?
Autumn dresses itself in a variety of colours. The rest of us too. One says expressive black, another grey, one brightness, and still another drabness. In the church it is also multicoloured. Around the altar. The dominant white of liturgical garments is sometimes covered by the colours: red, green, violet or rose, and occasionally black. Plus added to them some gold, silver or blue. The choice of the priest’s chasuble does not depend on how he is feeling. It is determined by liturgical regulation. On this day such and such a colour, on this one another. Where’s this idea come from? Well, it’s because these colours (just like the liturgical garments I wrote about previously) also have their meaning.
In the season of Christmas, the Lord’s Resurrection, the Feasts of the Lord, Mary, the angels and saints who were not martyrs, white prevails. Sometimes decorated with gold or – on Marian feasts – blue. The colour white (let’s not be too pedantic and so not say white is actually a lack of colour) symbolises heavenly glory and majesty. In the book of Daniel, the Eternal God sitting on the throne is dressed in a white robe, the robe of Jesus becomes brilliant white when in the scene on mount Tabor He talks with Moses and Elijah. Also robed in white are the messengers of God (in the tomb of Jesus on the day of the resurrection, at His ascension). Finally, those who share in Jesus’ victory will be clothed in white garments – foretold in the apocalyptic letter to the Church in Sardis, the twenty-four elders of the vision sitting around God (Rev 4:4), and in yet another vision all “standing before the Throne and the Lamb”, who had previously washed their robes in the blood (!) of the Lamb (Rev 7). So, white is the colour of heavenly glory; the heavenly joy of the saved. In this context it is also worth looking at it in the liturgy. It is an exceptionally clear prediction of heaven for us.
And since it is the colour of God, His servants and those, who despite adversities faithfully remained with God, white also often means innocence and purity. Not just in the sexual context, but more broadly, in the whole lifestyle of a person. In the Bible when juxtaposed with dirt or redness it is a symbol of purification. As in the case of Isaiah (1:18):
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
White is very fitting for those who going through life stick to the paths of the eight beatitudes and in the variety of circumstances try to be faithful to Christ. It would be good, therefore, if this whiteness was also fitting for us. The colour white in the liturgy allows us now in a way to see heaven, to see holiness, and simply for us to hear the call.
Red . . .
Red is above all else the colour of blood. This is why the colour red is used in the liturgy for the Passion of the Lord – Passion (Palm) Sunday, Good Friday, the Exaltation of the Cross. Then it reminds us of the blood of the Lamb – Christ, in which they “have washed their robes and made them white” (Rev 7:14), which washes their hearts from the dirt of sin. On the days when we remember the holy martyrs we in turn remind ourselves of their blood; blood shed for the sake of faithfulness to Christ. So, on the one hand red in the liturgy makes us aware
of the at what cost we have been redeemed, and on the other is a call to faithfulness to Christ, even if at a high price.
Red also comes close to the colour of fire. This is why red is used in the liturgy during all celebrations associated with the Holy Spirit as a reminder of the “tongues as if of fire” that rested over the disciples in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. Through this symbolic association with the third person of the Holy Trinity, red becomes a reminder that: I too have been anointed with the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit works in the Church, but is also in each Christian person. Especially in those who have received the sacrament of Confirmation. May I also be on fire with the zeal to put into practice what Christ has taught.
In this context it is worth also remembering the biblical symbolism of red. It has been a symbol of sin and transgression. As in the case of Isaiah quoted above when scarlet and purple (the shade with a redness) becomes synonymous with defilement by sin.
Red is also a symbol of wealth, sumptuousness and splendour. As in the case of Jeremiah, when he condemns the attitude of Jehoiakim (one of the kings of Judah), he characterises his attitude like this:
I will build myself a great house
with spacious upper rooms,
who cuts out windows for it,
panelling it with cedar
and painting it with vermilion.
The rich man in the parable about the rich man and Lazarus was dressed in purple (and fine linen). And to make even greater mockery of Jesus they put a purple cloak on Him . . .
Is red Christian? Yes, if
we read as a call to faithfulness to the Gospel. Not, when it I a symbol of vanity, luxury and idleness.
Violet, black and rose . . .
Violet in the Old Testament appears as one kind of purple; signs of wealth and splendour. In the New Testament, I can find no mention of it. To the eye (at least mine 😉) it is a pale, murky red. And in fact, you can get it by mixing red and blue. So, you can probably see this colour as a dim glow. And that is how it used in the liturgy: it means sorrow, penance, mourning and is an expression of waiting for a change that is better. Hence, it is use during Advent and Lent. Outside of these seasons, for funeral liturgies and Masses for the dead.
For the latter, the colour black may also be used. In our culture it is the colour of mourning. It reminds us of the grave dug into the earth into which the human body is laid. It a sort of colour of darkness, sadness, loss and hopelessness. And this why some argue we should move away from this colour in the funeral liturgy. However, some argue that pain is a reality of death, not only for the deceased, and so are sadness and loss, and society is hiding away from this reality and even totally sanitising it away so that death has become a taboo subject to even talk about. I know where I stand in these two arguments. I don’t believe black is a sign of hopelessness but acknowledges grief which if supressed becomes a burden in the lives of survivors. Black reminds us we still have role and indeed a duty to continue to assist the deceased journey to eternal light, and not to assume they are immediately standing among the heavenly throng when they may not yet be.
This violet, the shadiness of a dim red, as though it was waiting again to be red; the red of a fire that has it source in the Holy Spirit’s fervent joy, the red that symbolises plenty and the absence of worries. Hence, twice a year, a lighter and redder violet is used: rose. On the third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete and on the fourth Sunday of Lent – Laetare. Both words in English are translated as the call to rejoice. And colour violet becoming redder let’s us live in the hope that this time of sadness or penance will soon come to end.
Gold, silver or blue . . .
These are only additions to liturgical colours. Having the role of “spicing up” liturgical vestments and – the first two – give them a more solemn and festive appearance. White doesn’t look particularly attractive on its own. And blue, as already mentioned, is the customary colour of Mary. Perhaps because it’s the colour of the heavens. So, on her holy days, a white and blue mix.
Green . . .
This colour is spring. It is joy and life, especially new life. Therefore, it symbolises rebirth, youth and hope. In the Bible there are many references to this universal colour, especially in the context of life and death. Well, doesn’t the psalmist speak of the abundance of peace and safety for the people of God, when he describes the green pastures on which to graze. Elsewhere, the dependence of green grass on the weather and its withering are an image of the futility of human life. Vegetation – and most plants are green – is the image of Israel’s rebirth. This is the case, e.g. in Hosea, where God compares Himself to an “evergreen cypress” (14:8). On the other hand the New Testament recalls the story of the fig tree, which had leaves but no fruit, and curse by Jesus, in one night died. Perhaps less striking is the green grass on which the witnesses to the miraculous multiplication of the loaves in Mark’s gospel; is this just the mentioning of a fact, that it was spring (the grass in this climate is often yellowed) or is it an allusion to a new beginning, new life – let’s leave that to the biblical scholars.
It is characteristic that green which carries such symbolism is used in liturgies of the so-called ordinary time. That is, for the largest part of the liturgical year. Ordinariness? Everyday? Yes, but still imbued with newness, joy and life, such as Jesus brings with Him. It is the ordinary time but not so ordinary. Changed by what Christ has done. Revitalised by Him. Constantly blooming anew and preparing to give good fruit.
For this is the ordinariness of Christian life. Now, never without God, in the barren, sun-scorched wilderness of human ideas and dealings. Always with Him who gives life; life in abundance. And someday, life eternal in heaven. The green colour of Ordinary Time constantly reminds of the newness of life.