Some of you are not familiar with the use of color in liturgical worship, and others have grown up with these colors but don’t know why we use certain colors on certain days.
First: color shapes our perception. Decorators can attest to how significant a color change in a room can be, or how the “right” color can transform an otherwise drab living space. It’s the same with our worship space: when we change the colors of the paraments (more on these in a moment) and the banners, we change the “mood” of the room. The colors we choose can help carry the message of the Scripture lessons for that Sunday (and the lectionary readings are the basis for liturgical worship, as I have written about before), or they can detract from it. When we change the colors in the worship space, we are trying to “say” the same thing visually that the Scriptures, when they are read and proclaimed, are saying to our ears.
Paraments: Isn’t that a kind of wax?
No, you’re thinking of paraffin. “Paraments” is the generic term for the colored items used to decorate the church, including the antependia (hangings for the pulpit and lectern, sometimes called a “pulpit scarf”), frontals or prefrontals for the Communion table (I would explain the difference between a frontal and a prefrontal, but I’m afraid this post has already bored you enough), and Bible markers. Changing the paraments is the main way we change the colors for worship. The other ways we change colors is by changing the color of the stoles worn by the clergy and the choir, and changing out the banners (if the church has a set of banners).
So, what do the colors mean?
There are four “standard” liturgical colors: green, purple, white, and red. There are also some “secondary” colors which are either used occasionally or may be substituted for some of the above. These include scarlet, gold, blue, rose, and “Lenten array” (see below). Each color helps set the tone for worship:
WHITE reminds us of glory and celebration. It is used for all Dominical feasts (feasts “of the Lord” or “of our Lord,” such as “The Nativity of the Lord,” “The Resurrection of the Lord,” “The Baptism of the Lord,” etc.) and for weddings and other celebratory occasions. Since white is used for Easter, a.k.a. The Resurrection of the Lord, it is also used for funerals, since every funeral is a service of witness to the Resurrection. For the same reason, white is the color for All Saints’ Day (or All Saints’ Sunday). White is also used for Trinity Sunday.
PURPLE is a rather somber color. It reminds us of preparation and penitence. When the worship space is decorated in purple, it means “something is going to happen soon!” Purple is the color for the seasons of Advent and Lent. Both are seasons of preparation rather than of celebration. Advent looks ahead to Christmas just as Lent looks ahead to Easter. Variations: In some churches, a royal blue is used for Advent instead of purple in order to distinguish Advent from Lent. I used purple on my color coded calendar since, while blue is permitted in some churches, it is not authorized in others, so purple was the more ecumenical choice of the two. In some traditions, especially among some Anglicans, the Lenten array (a natural, unbleached linen or other off-white or ash, rough cloth, which may be accented with purple and/or earth tones) is used instead of purple during Lent.
RED reminds us of fire and is therefore the color for Pentecost. Red also reminds us of blood and so is the color for martyrs’ days and also for Reformation Day or Reformation Sunday (in those churches that celebrate that day) as well as the color for Holy Week. Holy Week may be a crimson color (Oxblood or “Passiontide” Red), however, instead of the fiery red of Pentecost. Although Holy Week is still a part of Lent, the color changes from purple to crimson from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday to remind us of the Passion of Christ. On Maundy Thursday, the worship space is stripped of all decorations, including all paraments, banners, and stoles, so Good Friday and Holy Saturday have no color: the worship space is bare for those days.
GREEN is the color of growth and of new life. For this reason, it is used for the Sundays after Epiphany to remind us that “Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” Green is also used on the Sundays after Pentecost, as we focus on the growth of the church during those weeks.
Other variations: On especially celebratory occasions, such as Christmas Day, Epiphany, and Easter Sunday, gold may be used in combination with white (or instead of white). In some congregations, white is used instead of crimson (or red) on Maundy Thursday, since the institution of the Eucharist is indeed a celebratory occasion. (The paraments and other decorations would still be removed at the end of the Maundy Thursday service, leaving the worship space bare for Good Friday and Holy Saturday.)
Prepare, Celebrate, Reflect
As I wrote in the book Rekindling Advent, the Church Year is based on the rhythm of Prepare, Celebrate, Reflect. There are two main celebrations in the Christian Year: the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany (December 25 – January 6), and the Great Fifty Days of Easter (from Easter Sunday through Pentecost). Each of these seasons of celebration uses the color white. Each one is preceded by a season of preparation: Advent before Christmas and Lent before Easter. Both seasons of preparation use the color purple. Each of these celebratory seasons is also followed by a season of reflection: The Sundays after Epiphany (sometimes called “Kingdomtide”) and the Sundays after Pentecost. Each of these seasons of reflection uses the color green. Here’s another nice parallel between the spring cycle (Easter) and the winter cycle (Christmas). In each case, the season of preparation (Advent or Lent) is preceded by a Sunday whose color is white (Christ the King one week before Advent starts, and Transfiguration Sunday on the Sunday before Lent begins).
Red is thrown in there here and there: Pentecost Sunday, Holy Week, Reformation Day (or Reformation Sunday) if celebrated, martyrs’ days if observed, and Thanksgiving Day if there is a worship service on that day. Why is Thanksgiving Day red? Probably because red is the most under-used of all the liturgical colors, so churches wanted to try to get a little more use out of those red paraments. (This seriously seems to be the only reason: many congregations, if they have a Thanksgiving Day service, just keep the green paraments up. Then again, Thanksgiving Day is an American-only observance and as such is not really a part of the Christian Year.)
There is one other color: ROSE. It is only used on two Sundays in the year, and for this reason many churches do not have rose-colored paraments and many clergy do not have rose-colored stoles or chasubles. Rose marks the mid-point of both Advent (the Third Sunday of Advent) and Lent (the Fourth Sunday in Lent). On both occasions, the tone is a bit lighter than the rest of the season. The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday (for “rejoice”), and the Fourth Sunday in Lent is called Laetare Sunday (another word for “rejoice”). The only time many worshipers will have seen rose used is for the rose-colored candle that is sometimes used in the Advent Wreath and lit on the Third Sunday of Advent. It’s a lot less expensive just to buy one rose-colored candle than a whole set of rose-colored paraments.
Have you experienced the use of these colors in worship? Have you seen them introduced in worship in a congregation that had been unfamiliar with the use of liturgical color previously? What are your thoughts on the use of color and how it affects worship?