I would give my life for a single ceremony of the Church.
-St. Teresa of Avila
- White for joy, the Blessed Virgin, Christmas, Easter and the Transfiguration.
- Red for the Holy Ghost and martyrs.
- Green for days in the new springtime.
- Purple for the seasons of penance and fasting.
- Black for sadness and the darkness of the grave.
These are the colors of the liturgy, generally understood, in the Western Church and they are most obvious in the Mass as they are the colors of the priest’s vestments and they correspond to the season or occasion. We are often enough told that this or that is a reminder of something and often enough it goes in one ear and out the other. Here we have something for our eyes instead.
In A History of the Mass and its Ceremonies in the Eastern and Western Church, published in 1879 by Rev. John O’Brien, A.M., there is another explanation given of these colors in the form of an admonishment to priests:
“From an ancient Irish book called the Leabhar Breac, supposed to be written about the sixth century, the following curious extract is given by Dr. Moran, now Bishop of Ossory, in his Discipline of the Early Irish Church. It relates to the colors of the sacred vestments:
The priest’s mind should agree with the variety and meaning of each distinct color, and should be filled with vigilance and awe, and be withdrawn from ambition and pride, when he reflects on what the various colors typify.
The white typifies that he should be filled with confusion and shame if his heart be not chaste and shining, and his mind like the foam of the wave, or like the chalk on the gable of an oratory, or like the color of the swan in the sunshine—that is, without any particle of sin, great or small, resting in it.
The red typifies that his heart should start and tremble in his breast through terror and fear of the Son of God, for the scars and wounds of the Son of God were red upon the cross when he was crucified by the unbelieving Jews.
The green typifies that he should be filled with great faintness and distress of mind and heart; for what is understood by it is his interment at the end of his life, under the mould of the earth, for green is the original color of all the earth.
The purple typifies that he should call to mind Jesus, who is in heaven in the plenitude of His glory and majesty, and with the nine orders of angels who praise the Creator throughout all eternity.
The black typifies that he should shed bitter tears for his sins, lest he be condemned to the society of the devil and dwell perpetually in endless pain.
From all this we clearly see that even so far back as the sixth century some churches had all the colors in use that we have now. They are a distinct sign of unity not only in the here and now, from one parish to the next, but chronologically as well, stretching back for centuries, and in all likelihood, will continue for centuries beyond, even to the end of time. (For those who may consider the above admonitions quaint, dark and too austere, I recommend asking your parish priest to let you see the sacramentary he uses on the altar. The first entry found under “Preparation for Mass” is a prayer by St. Ambrose. It begins “Lord Jesus Christ, I approach your banquet table in fear and trembling, for I am a sinner…”)
Of all these liturgical colors, black is nowadays rarely seen and this is somewhat sad. In our day and age, it not only breaks with the Church’s long-held continuity and custom but now commonly replaced with white, ushers in some confusion. The colors of our liturgy not only communicate to us things existing in Eternity but also express our own human feelings and humble compliance to the Eternal. Green is the new springtime…rejoice in your redemption! Red is martyrs’ blood…remember their sacrifice!
The death of a loved one may be a joyful thing to the deceased (should they be so fortunate to gain immediate entrance into heaven) but their passing ordinarily gives the survivors immense grief. We miss our loved ones. White is joy and it doesn’t correlate to what’s in our hearts nor to the fact that death is a consequence of sin, as made clear by God to Adam in the Book of Genesis. Further, it lessens the Church’s strong admonition to pray for dead that they be loosed from their sins and the pains of purgatory (see 2 Maccabees, 12). Why pray for those that we’ve already canonized as saints? A priest wearing white at a funeral Mass begs this question. It also flies in the face of Christ’s clear teaching of the reality of sin and its consequences. Praying for our deceased loved ones not only brings them help and consolation (should they need it) but consoles us as well. Black reinforces that reminder and reminds us doubly of our own mortality.
There are yet three other colors employed by the Church’s liturgies which are not mentioned above: gold, blue and ‘Old Rose’. Gold we usually see on solemnities such as Christmas and Easter and it is considered interchangeable with white. Until the 19th century, gold vestments were not expressly allowed but were tolerated by the Church and could also replace red and green.
Blue had been long in use in England. Again, Fr. O’Brien:
That blue vestments were once common in England, we have the most undeniable proofs. In Dugdale’s history of St. Paul’s, London, we find enumerated among that cathedral’s goods in 1295 several vestments of a blue color; and in an inventory of the church of Lincoln there is mentioned ‘a chesable of blew damask, a cope of the same color, a cope of cloth of gold, a bawdkin of blew color’. Bishop Wykeham bequeathed to his church at Windsor ‘his new vestment of blue cloth, striped and embroidered with lions of gold’.
Blue is associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially the Immaculate Conception. Today in the Latin Rite blue is not generally allowed (UCCSB GIRM Chapter 6, #346) although white vestments with blue trim and decoration are. But in Spain and her former colonies, and at certain Marian shrines blue is allowed on Marian feast days and votive Masses in her honor, most particularly on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. An example of a Latin shrine carrying this permission is the Shrine of Our Lady of Mariazell in Austria, where in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wore blue.
Lastly, we have Old Rose (we would call it ‘pink’ but it has been asserted by some, particularly in Fr. Stravinskas’ Catholic Encyclopedia that it is not pink) and it is allowed on only two days of the Church year: the third Sunday of Advent, called “Gaudete Sunday”, and the fourth Sunday of Lent, called “Laetare Sunday”. A lighter hue of purple, Old Rose is used for two reasons: firstly, it expresses our anticipated joy of the upcoming feasts of Christmas and Easter as well as a lessening of our penances (not that we should quit our penances but that Sundays are never penitential, even during Lent). Secondly, the custom comes from Rome, where on the feast of Laetare Sunday a rose of gold is blessed and given to a Catholic of noble blood who has shown particular concern for the Church and its needs. This practice is recorded as far back as Pope Leo IX in 1051 and he himself mentions it as an ancient practice. In our day, the rose is given to a particular place, usually a cathedral or basilica.
The importance and meaning of these simple eight colors are easy enough for a child to grasp. Don’t let these things pass you by when you see them.