Colour-coding the year

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The year, according to the calendar explored in the previous few posts, is colour-coded. Colour coding for different types of celebration grew-up over time, and mainly in the Western Church. The Western, particularly Roman, mindset is generally much more inclined to make things tidy, and organise them according to clear patterns than is the Eastern Church.

This colour scheme is not just a tool for organisation. It helps provide not only a quick visual guide to the changing seasons, but also, subliminally, can help create the mood.

Art installation, summer 2019, Durham city centre

The colour of Ordinary Time, the colour that doesn’t point to any particular mood or season, is green. This is the default, both for the church and for nature. It is the colour we are used to seeing most of the year, inside our church buildings and in the world around us.

The traditional colour for the seasons of major celebration, Christmas and Easter, is gold, or as is the case in most churches with only a limited selection of colours, white. These are usually among the most ornate hangings and vestments, often adding significance to the colour emphasising celebration. The same colour extends into the new Anglican season of Epiphany, again by parallel with the extended season of Easter.

The seasons that prepare for these major festival times, Advent and Lent, have increasingly assimilated to each other. In most churches, the colour for these is purple. Originally the imperial colour, because purple dyes were so costly, it was particularly appropriate to an Advent season focussed on the coming King, as Lord and Judge. That Advent usage helped also associate it with penitence and seriousness about life, and it increasingly became used for Lent as well.

In the past, and still in some churches, the custom was to use Lent Array – vestments and hangings made of unbleached linen, a descendant of sackcloth, as in the phrase “sackcloth and ashes”, a biblical sign of penitence. However, most churches work with a rather more limited repertoire of colours, and purple does double duty for Advent and Lent.

There is one exception to the use of purple, again only in some churches, and this is again an example of the ways in which we keep Advent and Lent growing to look like each other. You may, like me, sometimes find your Twitter feed filling up with clergy posing in pink. What is that about?

On the third Sunday in Advent, and the fourth Sunday in Lent, some places use vestments and hangings that are coloured rose, or pink. These Sundays, Gaudete Sunday in Advent, and Laetare Sunday in Lent, get their names from the entrance antiphon or introit that was sung to begin the Latin mass. Gaudete and Laetare both mean “rejoice”, from different Latin words.1 These mark respectively a change in the mood of Advent, as we begin to look more to Christmas than the final coming of Christ, and a break in the sombre mood of Lent, as the association with “mother” Jerusalem2 leads to the celebration of Mothering Sunday.

In Holy Week, and at Pentecost, the colour is red: signifying blood in the first case, and fire in the second. Some churches have two sets of red, differently decorated for the two seasons, and sometimes a deeper shade of red for Holy Week and a more vibrant red for Pentecost. Red is also used for feast days of martyrs, apostles and evangelists, picking up those same echoes of blood and fire. (White is used for other saints’ days.)

There are two more unusual uses of colour I note for the sake of being comprehensive. One is the use of black for All Souls and funeral masses (though it seems to me that even in Roman Catholic parishes, purple is being more frequently used). The other is the use of blue. There was an old English mediaeval tradition which used blue in Advent, which a handful of churches still use, and you can find the odd Anglo-Catholic parish which (following Orthodox custom) uses blue for feasts of Our Lady.

The ambience which colour brings to the church helps set the mood for the seasons, but the readings, and the care with which they are read, are the definitive markers of the mood and season, and the choice of music always needs to be made with the readings in mind, so that the word, music and colour are working in harmony and reinforcing one another.


Notes

  1. The Advent introit (entrance song) is a version of the text of Philippians 4:4-6 (Rejoice in the Lord always …), and the Lent introit begins with Isaiah 66:10 (Rejoice, O Jerusalem …).
  2. See Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother” (Gal 4:26). This was the traditional Catholic and Anglican epistle for the Sunday.

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