The Liturgical Colors
As we begin learning about the key changes in the Church calendar, between the previous 3-year and the traditional 1-year lectionaries, we review the meaning of the liturgical colors. The liturgical
colors are something of a visual guide through the calendar. There are 5 of them: purple, green, white, red, and black.
Purple corresponds to the penitential seasons (in other words, Advent and Lent). The purple seasons are the seasons of fasting, repentance, and preparation. They are always leading up to something: Advent leads up to Christmas and to the Last Day; Lent leads up to Easter. It was a purple robe that they put on the Lord Jesus before they crucified Him.
Green is symbolic of the growth of the Faith and of the Church and corresponds to the seasons of Epiphany (where the Christ is progressively revealing Himself to the world) and Trinity (when the post-Pentecost Church grows and spreads). Green naturally brings to mind the growth of plants, and it is Christ is who is the vine and we the branches. Green is also a color of peace: with the Christ’s coming accomplished, the Church has peace.
White is the color of holiness. In the book of Revelation, the glorified Christ appears in a white robe. White is used for the festivals of the Christ-those festivals which directly pertain to key events in the Christ’s ministry. Christmas, Transfiguration, Easter, and Epiphany are all white. Although it is not properly a festival of the Christ, Trinity Sunday is also white, because it confesses the one holiness of the Trinity. The feast of Pentecost used to be
white because it confessed the divinity of the Christ and of the Holy Spirit. In fact, if you look at the calendar in your hymnal (page 3), Pentecost is
called WHITSUNDAY” (literally, “white Sunday'”). It has been popularly made a red day because of its connection to fire and to the work ofthe Church Militant.
Red is the color of blood and, therefore, ofboth martyrdom and warfare. Red is used for the festivals of martyrs and for those festivals concerning the work of the Church Militant, as she employs God’s Word and sacraments against the spiritual forces of wickedness in this life. For this reason, ordinations and Reformation Day are red, and it seems-why Pentecost has become red.
Black is the color reserved for Good Friday, alone.
A side note concerning the festivals of martyrs: not all martyrs were actually killed. Some, they wanted to kill but were not able to. The early
Church divided them into “red” martyrs and white martyrs. “Red” martyrs were literally killed for the Faith. “White” martyrs they wanted to kill, but failed to do so. This is why the feast of St. John (Dec. 27) is a white day, while the feast of St. Stephen (Dec. 26) is a red day.
There is a pattern to the colors of the Church Year: Purple > White > Green. The purple of Advent prepares for the white of Christmas, which turns into the peaceful green of the Epiphany season. Likewise, the purple of Lent prepares for the white of Easter, leading to the spread of the Gospel in the green of the Trinity season.
As of today-December 22, the fourth Sunday of Advent-the church colors are purple. Christmas Eve, likewise, is purple, because it is properly the last day of Advent.
Christmas, which is white, is not just one day, but a short season of the Church calendar. The twelve days of Christmas go from December 25 through January 5. Any Sunday or festival that falls into the Christmas season except for red martyr days-are white. Thus, if a church celebrates New Year’s, it will be a white service, not because New Year’s is special, but because it falls within the Christmas season.
Epiphany–January 6–is the celebration of the arrival of the magi. It is a festival of the Christ and, therefore, the color is white. The rest of the
Epiphany season is green.
This is only a quick recap of the liturgical colors in their use and sequence, before we come to more specific points in the Church year.Amen.