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
|Colour||Obligatory Usage||Optional Usage|
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.
The Roman Missal as revised by Pope John XXIII in 1962, was authorized for use as an extraordinary form of the Roman Rite by Pope Benedict XVI by 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:
- Violet is worn on the following occasions, of which the first four listed are not included in later editions of the Roman Missal:
- Ember days
- Rogation days
- The three Sundays before Lent, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima
- The vigils of the Immaculate Conception, Christmas, Epiphany, and the Assumption
- The Vigil of Easter and the Vigil of Pentecost, up to but not including the Mass
- The Communion service on Good Friday
- Mass on All Souls' Day if celebrated while the Blessed Sacrament is exposed
- Red is worn for the blessing of palms and the procession, but not for Mass, on Palm Sunday
- Black is worn:
- Rose is allowed on the two days indicated above, even where that colour has not been customary
- 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:
- White had been worn for celebrations of days within the octaves of: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, St. Joseph, Ascension, Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart, Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Transfiguration, Assumption, All Saints, Immaculate Conception, and the Dedication of the church.
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).
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.
The Byzantine Rite, which is used by all the member churches of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the 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:
|Colour||Common Usage||Other Usage/Notes|
|Purple or Red||
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
According to the Russian Orthodox Church's Nastol'naya Kniga Sviashchenno-sluzhitelia, up to eight different liturgical colours may be used throughout the year. Exact usage of these colours varies, but the following are the most common uses.
|Colour||Common Usage||Uncommon/Other Usage|
|Purple or Dark Red||
|Orange or Rust||
Coptic and Ethiopic Rites
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. For historical reasons much of the worldwide Anglican Communion takes a noticeable lead from the practice of the Church of England. Since the 1980 Alternative Service Book liturgical colours have been recommended for seasons, with more detailed advice offered as part of the Common Worship series of liturgies, including colours for all Sundays and festivals printed in the 'core volume' next to collects. The Church's published Lectionary now makes detailed suggestions for liturgical colour throughout the year, which corresponds almost exactly with the above table of Roman Rite (post-1969 usage) usage with five minor exceptions, and one more significant one: there is no reference in Anglican usage to masses of deceased popes and cardinals; no liturgical colour at all is suggested for Holy Saturday (the words "hangings removed" are printed); the recommendation of red for confirmation rites is extended also to ordination rites; Lenten Array (unbleached linen) continues to be listed as an alternative option to purple during Lent; the option exists for using red instead of green during the "Kingdom Season", the four last Sundays of the liturgical year, culminating in Christ the King, as is common is some Lutheran traditions (see below); finally, more significantly, the Church of England provision suggests white throughout the Sundays after Epiphany as a distinct "Epiphany season", with ordinary time commencing the day after Candlemas. The Church of England suggested scheme of colours also indicates where gold vestments should be used in those churches which possess both gold and white as distinct colours. The use of rose-pink vestments, as in the Roman Rite table above, was mentioned as an option in early editions of Common Worship, and is a listed option in the annual published lectionary; however, later Common Worship publications have begun to refer to this practice as "traditional" reflecting its resurgence.
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. Such vairations are increasingly less common, as more and more Provinces of Anglicanism indicate "recommended" liturgical colours in their lectionaries.
Less commonly, a very few 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.
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 used 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 31, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses onto the door of Wittenburg Cathedral.
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.
- Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, no. 346; cf. text for Australia, England and Wales, United States
- The optional use of blue as a liturgical colour for feasts of our Lady is restricted to a few dioceses, as explained below.
- GIRM, 347
- GIRM, 346
- Cantica Nova Puplications, Advent Blues, editorial by Gary D. Penkala, December 2000
- Missale Romanum 1962 in PDF Format
- Rubricae generales Missalis: XVIII – De Coloribus Paramentorum in the 1920 typical edition of the Roman Missal omitted the phrase "exceptis Dominicis infra octavas occurrentibus, in quibus color octavarum servatur" found in earlier editions beginning with Pope Pius V's edition of 1570 (page 21 of the facsimile published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana in 1998 – ISBN 88-209-2547-8).
- 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.
- The use of rose-pink vestments is suggested in the liturgical colour sequence notes of Common Worship of which an on-line version may be found here.
- For example, see "Common Worship - Times & Seasons", added to the Common Worship series in 2006, page 50, paragraph 1: "rose-pink vestments are traditionally worn".
- Ordo missae celebrandae et divini officii persolvendi secundum calendarium romanum generale pro anno liturgico 2005-2006, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005.
- Christian Symbols, Crosses, Parament Colours; and their meanings
- "Liturgical colours". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04134a.htm.
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