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Liturgical colours

Liturgical colours are those specific colours which are used for vestments and hangings within the context of Christian liturgy. The symbolism of violet, white, green, red, gold, black, rose, and other colours may serve to underline moods appropriate to a season of the liturgical year or may highlight a special occasion.

There is a distinction between the colour of the vestments worn by the clergy and their choir dress, which with a few exceptions does not change with the liturgical seasons.

The Roman Rite

In the Roman Rite, as reformed by Pope Paul VI, the following colours are used.

Colour Obligatory Usage Optional Usage
Green

Violet

White

Red

Rose

Black

Ritual Masses are celebrated in their proper colour, in white, or in a festive colour. Masses for Various Needs, on the other hand, are celebrated in the colour proper to the day or the season or in violet if they bear a penitential character. Votive Masses are celebrated in the colour suited to the Mass itself or even in the colour proper to the day or the season.

On more solemn days, festive, that is, more precious, sacred vestments may be used, even if not of the colour of the day. Such vestments may, for instance, be made from cloth of silver (permitted in the past only for white) or cloth of gold (historically allowed in place of white, red, or green). Moreover, the Conference of Bishops may determine and propose to the Apostolic See adaptations suited to the needs and culture of peoples.

Regional and situational exceptions

Some particular variations:

  • White may, in various English-speaking countries, be worn instead of violet or black at Funeral Masses, expressing the hope of the Resurrection, especially in the funerals of children. In countries where white is the traditional colour of mourning, as in some parts of Asia, white is the obligatory colour in Masses for the dead.
  • Blue, a colour associated with the Virgin Mary, is allowed for the feast of the Immaculate Conception in some dioceses in Spain, Portugal, Mexico and South America. In the Philippines it is authorized for all feasts of the Virgin Mary, a practice followed in some other places without official authorization. There have also been unauthorized uses of blue in place of violet for the season of Advent, as a symbol of expectation and hope - the blue of a new day.
  • White or cloth of gold was traditionally used when celebrating a novena from 16 to 24 December in accordance with a Spanish custom that was abolished in that country in the 1950s, but that still holds in the Philippines. Further, if not enough vestments of the proper colour are available (particularly in concelebrations), white may always be substituted.

1960 form

The Roman Missal as revised by Pope John XXIII in 1962, has been authorized for use as an extraordinary form of the Roman Rite by Pope Benedict XVI with the 2007 motu proprio entitled Summorum Pontificum. Pope John XXIII's revision of the Missal incorporated changes that he had made with his motu proprio Rubricarum instructum of 29 July 1960. The following are the small differences between its rules for liturgical colours and the later rules:

Before 1960

  • Violet was worn:
    • At Masses of the Passion of the Lord
    • On the feast of the Holy Innocents, unless it fell on Sunday, when red was used
    • At the Blessing of Candles on the Purification BVM
  • Red was worn on the following additional occasions:

In 1955, Pope Pius XII revised the liturgical calendar, abolishing all octaves except those of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

He also revised the Holy Week liturgy, introducing the use of red on Palm Sunday for the blessing of the palms and the procession (for which the colour was previously violet), but not for the Mass, and the use of violet for the Communion service on Good Friday (for which the colour was previously black).

Pope Pius X raised the rank of Sundays of ordinary time, so that on those that fell within octaves green was used instead of the colour of the octave, as had previously been the rule.

The rules on liturgical colours before the time of Pope Pius X were essentially those indicated in the edition of the Roman Missal that Pope Pius V promulgated in 1570, except for the addition of feasts not included in his Missal. The scheme of colours in his Missal reflected usage that had become fixed in Rome by the twelfth century.

Byzantine Rite

The Byzantine Rite, which is used by all the member churches of the Eastern Orthodox Church and by the Greek-Catholic Churches (Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine Rite), does not have a universal system of colours, with the service-books of the Byzantine tradition only specifying "light" or "dark" vestments in the service books. In the Greek tradition, maroon or burgundy are common for solemn feast days, and a wide variety of colours are used at other times, the most common of which are gold and white.

Slavic-use churches and others influenced by Western traditions have adopted a cycle of liturgical colours. The particulars may change from place to place, but generally:

The colours would be changed before Vespers on the eve of the day being commemorated. During Great Feasts, the colour is changed before the vespers service that begins the first day of a forefeast, and remains until the apodosis (final day of the afterfeast).

Under Western influence, black is often used for funerals, weekdays in Great Lent and Holy Week in the Slavic churches, as a sign of penance and mourning, but in the second half of the 20th century, the ancient white became more common, as a sign of the hope of the Resurrection.

Russian Liturgical Colours

From the Russian Church's "Nastol'naya Kniga Sviashchenno-sluzhitelia":

The most important Feasts of the Orthodox Church and the sacred events for which specific colours of vestments have been established, can be united into six basic groups.

1. The group of Feasts and days commemorating Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prophets, the Apostles and the Holy Hierarchs. Vestment colour: Gold (yellow)of all shades.

2. The group of Feasts and days commemorating the Most Holy Mother of God, the Bodiless Powers and Virgins. Vestment colour: Light Blue and White.

3. The group of Feasts and days commemorating the Cross of Our Lord.Vestment colour: Purple or Dark Red.

4. The group of Feasts and days commemorating Martyrs. Vestment colour:Red. [On Great and Holy Thursday, Dark Red vestments are worn, even though the church is still covered with black and the Holy (Altar) Table is covered with a white cloth.]

5. The group of Feasts and days commemorating Monastic Saints, Ascetics and Fools for Christ. Vestment colour: Green.

The Entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), Holy Trinity Day(Pentecost) and Holy Spirit Day (Monday after Pentecost) are, as a rule,celebrated in Green vestments of all shades.

6. During the Lenten periods, the vestment colours are: Dark Blue, Purple, Dark Green, Dark Red and Black. This last colour is used essentially for the days of Great Lent. During the first week of that Lent and on the weekdays of the following weeks, the vestment colour is Black. On Sundays and Feastdays of this period, the vestments are of a dark colour with Gold or coloured ornaments.

Funerals, as a rule, are done in White vestments.

But note: In earlier times, there were no Black vestments in the Orthodox Church, although the everyday clothing of the clergy, especially the Monastics, was Black. In ancient times, both in the Greek and in the Russian Churches, the clergy wore, according to the Typikon, "Crimson Vestments": Dark (Blood) Red vestments. In Russia, it was first proposed to the clergy of Saint Petersburg to wear Black Vestments, if possible, to participate in the Funeral of Emperor Peter II [1821 ]. From that time on, Black Vestments became customary for Funerals and the Services of Great Lent.

White is worn for the feasts and post-feasts of Epiphany,Transfiguration, and Pascha. In antiquity, Christmas and Epiphany were celebrated as one feast, Theophany of the Lord, so, in some places, White is worn on Christmas day, but Gold is worn from the second day of Christmas until Epiphany.

In Russia, at Liturgy on Holy Thursday, a white altar cover is used to represent the linen tablecloth of the Last Supper [the priest wears dark red, and the church remains in black until after Liturgy, when the priest's vestments return to black]. The Church and the vestments of the priest are changed to white at the prokeimenon of Holy Saturday Liturgy. In Muscovite custom, white is worn for Paschal Matins, bright red is worn at Pascha Liturgy. In some places white is worn from Ascension to Pentecost. In Carpatho-Russian style, white, exclusively, is worn in the Paschal season.White, the colour of Resurrection, is worn at funerals and memorial services.

Green is worn for Pentecost and its post-feast, feasts of prophets, and angels. In some places, green is worn for the Elevation of the Cross in September. In Carpatho-Russian practice, green is worn from Pentecost until Saints Peter and Paul Lent. Green is often worn for Palm Sunday.

Gold is worn from Christmas to Epiphany, and in some places, during Advent. Gold is worn when no other colour is specified. In one tradition, gold is worn on all Sundays (except when white is worn), including even the Sundays in all the fasting periods.

Red is worn for SS Peter and Paul lent, SS Peter and Paul feast, for Advent, for the Angels, Elevation of the Cross (Sept 15), and for feasts of Martyrs. In Moscow style, and on Mount Athos and at Jerusalem, bright red is worn on Pascha [after Matins] and on the Nativity.

Blue is worn for all feasts of the Virgin, Presentation of the Lord, Annunciation, and sometimes on the fifth Friday of Lent (Akathist). In Carpatho-Russian parishes, blue is worn for Dormition fast and feast, and is worn until Cross Elevation, sometimes even until Advent.

Purple is worn on weekends of Lent (black is worn weekdays). In some places, purple is worn on weekdays of Lent (gold on weekends).

Black is worn for weekdays in Lent, especially the first week of Lent and in Holy Week. In Carpatho-Russian, formerly Uniat parishes, black is worn on weekdays for funerals and memorial services and liturgies, as is done in the Roman Church, though this is not universally true any more.

Orange or rust is worn in some places for SS Peter and Paul fast, and in other places for SS Peter and Paul feast through Transfiguration.

Please note that when we say 'feast', we include the period from the vigil of the feast until it's apodosis, or 'putting away,' usually called the 'post-feast'. The length of these post-feasts vary, and are given in the Liturgical Calendar and Rubrics. Generally speaking, there is a post- feast of about a week for each of the twelve major feasts. As you can see, there is great variety in ways of doing things.

See: Nastol'naya Kniga Sviashchenno-sluzhitelia, Volume 4, Moscow,1983, Translated in "The Messenger" of St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral,Philadelphia, June, July-August, September, 1990.

Coptic and Ethiopic Rites

The Coptic tradition, followed also in Ethiopia and Eritrea, uses only white vestments, with gold and silver being considered variations of white. Outside celebration of the liturgy, normally black, is replaced during the liturgy by white.

Anglicanism

Most Anglican churches use the colours appointed in the Roman Rite, usually in its post-1969 form, but some use the earlier form, with, for instance, black in place of red on Good Friday. Some churches use black at masses for the dead, but more commonly white or purple is used.

Because colours are not established by liturgical law in Anglican churches, variations are common. Notable variations include the use of blue in Advent and "Lenten array" in Lent, consisting of unbleached muslin, linen, or burlap (varying in colour but usually ranging from off-white to beige), with crimson or black accents; both these variations are often attributed to the Sarum Rite.

Less commonly, some churches follow so-called "English Use" ceremonial derived from sources such as The Parson's Handbook and reconstructions of the Use of Sarum. Apart from the above, such uses can be characterized by the use of oxblood red in Passiontide, yellow for feasts of confessors, and (in some such parishes) red for Sundays in ordinary time.

Lutheranism

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, uses the same colour scheme as that of the Anglicans and their Scandinavian Lutheran counterparts, but with the use of gold only for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday services, with Holy Week using scarlet in place of crimson – congregations lacking scarlet vestments use purple from Palm Sunday through Holy Wednesday and white for Maundy Thursday. Black, traditionally use by the Anglican Communion for Good Friday and funerals, was used by the ELCA only for Ash Wednesday, but effective with the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) book, which replaces the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW), black is no longer suggested for Ash Wednesday or Good Friday – purple may be used for Ash Wednesday and no colour for Good Friday. In addition, the ELW suggests that blue, the traditional colour for Advent (with purple being the alternate), be used for the Advent season, reflecting the traditional use of blue in the Scandinavian Lutheran churches.

Both the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), along with the United Methodist Church use a similar system, but with purple being the primary colour for both Advent and Lent (with blue being the alternate colour for Advent only), and the use of gold in place of white for both Christmas and Easter (in similar practice to the Roman Catholic Church). In the WELS, the use of red is also done during the Period of End Times, a period of the Church in regards to the teachings of the Book of Revelation, culminating in the creation of the New Jerusalem (corresponding to Christ the King in the ELCA). In all three churches, including the ELCA, red is also worn on the last Sunday of October, in celebration of the Reformation on October 31st, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses onto the door of Wittenburg Cathedral.

Protestantism

Some Protestant churches, historically especially Methodists, and today many mainline Protestants, use a colour scheme similar to those used by Anglicans and Roman Catholics, although the practice is not universally followed. Many Protestant churches do not use liturgical colours at all. The United Methodist Church, prior to the early-1990s, used red solely for Pentecost, even including the Sundays after Pentecost Sunday, with the use of green being reserved for the season of Kingdomtide, which usually lasted from late August/early September until Christ the King (the last Sunday in Kingdomtide). Since the publication of the 1992 Book of Worship, the UMC has followed the ELCA practice of wearing red only for Pentecost and Reformation Sundays and green for the rest of the Pentecost season.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has sanctioned the use of liturgical colours and promoted their use in the 1993 Book of Common Worship (although their use was also promoted in the church's annual Planning Calendars beginning in the 1980s). Advent and Lent are periods of preparation and repentance and are represented by the colour purple. The feasts of Christmas Day and Christmastide, Epiphany Sunday, Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, Easter Season, Trinity Sunday, and Christ the King Sunday are represented by white. Green is the colour for periods of Ordinary Time. Red is for Pentecost Sunday, but may also be used for ordinations, and church anniversaries. Red or purple is appropriate for Palm Sunday. During Holy Week, the church may use purple or remain bare (although a few churches will use black for Good Friday).

Similarly, the United Church of Christ includes indications of which liturgical colour to use for each Sunday in its annual calendar. The general Western pattern is followed, with either Purple or Blue recommended for Advent.

References

  • Ordo missae celebrandae et divini officii persolvendi secundum calendarium romanum generale pro anno liturgico 2005-2006, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005.

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