Dean Letter: Concerning Liturgical Colors

Hello St. Paul’s,

As a child attending St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, I saw little color in our worship. The clergy of the very low Church of Ireland wore black cassock, white surplice, and black stole. There were no hangings or banners, and while there were (and still are) beautiful stained glass windows, the east end of the cathedral was blocked off for construction for much of my childhood, and I think the other windows must have been obscured by the coal dust that permeated the air in those days. Maybe you too grew up in a faith community that didn’t use much color in the liturgy.

A question about the red vestments we used for Saturday’s ordination has made me think that a brief refresher on liturgical colors might be timely. We use the liturgical colors in our clergy vestments, the altar frontal, and the banners or paraments that hang on either side of the chancel. You might also see coordinating notebooks and/or facemasks at the altar. Here’s a rundown on the colors of the seasons.

Starting at the beginning of the liturgical year, the Advent season before Christmas is traditionally marked by purple or blue liturgical fabrics. Purple denotes both royalty (recalling the expensive purple dye that was reserved for the aristocracy in ancient Rome) and penitence; a suitable combination of dynamics in this season when we prepare our hearts for the coming of the King of Kings. Blue is an option for this season, reflecting our respect for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our blue cathedral vestments were made in honor of the Rev. Canon Lee Teed, who served as subdean and director of liturgy for many years.

The short Christmas season is, of course, a festive time, and the colors are white and gold.

The period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday is one of the portions of the year known as Ordinary Time, because we name the Sundays by their order after Epiphany. The color of ordinary time is green, as we grow in our faith.

Lent is another penitential season like Advent, but with more emphasis on self-denial. Purple is often used, but there’s also the option of unbleached linen, known as the Lenten Array, which recalls the sackcloth used in ancient times for penitence.

In Holy Week we can wear a dark red called Oxblood, or we might use bright red if we don’t have Oxblood. Maundy Thursday, as a celebration of the Institution of the Eucharist, may be white. A very few churches have splendid black vestments for Good Friday.

Easter, like Christmas, is joyful and festive, and white and gold are the colors again. This continues throughout the 50 days of the Easter season.

The Feast of Pentecost is a celebration of the Holy Spirit and the flames that descended upon the disciples, so we wear bright red. But immediately after Pentecost we enter the other portion of Ordinary Time, as we count the Sundays after Pentecost for almost half the year until Advent comes around again. So we wear green throughout the summer and early fall.

Those are the main seasonal colors, but there are a number of occasions when we can depart from the season. For ordinations, where the Holy Spirit is front and center and the Bishop takes an Apostolic role, we wear red. Similarly, for major feasts of apostles and martyrs, we wear red. For saints other than martyrs, we wear the white of baptism (think of the passage in the Revelation to John where the question is “Who are these, dressed in white?”).

For weddings the color is white for festivity, and also for funerals, because in Christian burial we recall our baptism. White is an option for baptisms, although for Sunday morning baptisms we usually stick to the color of the season.

On the third Sunday of Advent and the fourth Sunday of Lent we may wear rose vestments, as a sign of a mid-season relaxation of discipline. These Sundays are known as Gaudete and Laetare Sunday respectively, Latin words both meaning “Rejoice”, referring to Scripture passages originally read on those days.

Finally, you may see an altar frontal or vestments that combine many colors. This is the practically named All Seasons option. As all these liturgical fabrics are extremely costly, it makes sense for many churches to use the All Seasons frontal throughout the year.

See you on Sunday – I’ll be in green!

Your sister in Christ,

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