A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Vestments and Liturgical Colours

Fr Merv Duffy sm

by Fr Merv Duffy sm

In my community we had a discussion about the colour used on Pentecost Sunday. The Holy Spirit seems to be elusive when it comes to symbols – wind has no colour, doves are white, but flames are portrayed as red. From staring at fires, I know that flames can be all sorts of colours from blue, through green and yellow, but the tongues of fire drawn in art to recall the events of the first Pentecost usually land up as a solid red. In the Creed the Holy Spirit is called “the giver of life” – blood is one of our symbols of life and that too is red. Paradoxically, blood is also a sign of suffering and death and red is our liturgical colour for the Passion, and for the feasts of martyrs, apostles and evangelists. It is also the colour for Pentecost Sunday.

Pentecost Stole designed by Patricia Hyde of Karori, NZ

Pentecost Stole designed by Patricia Hyde of Karori, NZ

Our discussion broadened out into why we used the liturgical colours. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal has a terse summary: “The purpose of a variety in the colour of the sacred vestments is to give effective expression even outwardly to the specific character of the mysteries of faith being celebrated and to a sense of Christian life’s passage through the course of the liturgical year.”

The baseline colour is green – that is used in ordinary time. Green symbolizes growth and life. After the drought we had this year the return of the green across the country in Autumn made the farmers very happy.

We switch to purple in the seasons of Advent and Lent. It is also our colour for mourning in funerals and masses for the dead. It carries more than a hint of sombre repentance. In masses for the dead we are praying that their sins be forgiven. In Advent and Lent we seek forgiveness for ourselves.

Particularly well-equipped parishes can celebrate the permitted exception to the season of purple; on the third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) and the fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) rose-coloured vestments may be worn. The names come from the first words in latin of the introits on those Sundays, and both translate as “Rejoice.” So pink is the liturgical colour of rejoicing.

White is the colour for the Christmas season and Eastertide. It is also worn on Trinity Sunday, feasts to do with Jesus (other than those of the Passion), celebrations of Mary, of the Angels, and of saints who are not martyrs. John the Baptist gets white for his birthday (June 24) and red for his beheading (August 29).

So the colours are cues for us as to what is being celebrated, as to the tone of the event and as to the passing of the liturgical year. I suspect that much of the time we do not consciously think about the colour being worn by the priest, but, as good symbols do, it has its effect anyway. 

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