Colours of the year

The special days, seasons and events celebrated by the church throughout the year are mainly associated with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ together with particular events in the agricultural year.  To mark these festivals and seasons different coloured cloths are used for the altar and the lectern.  Even the colour of the priests’ robes may change.  These different liturgical colours – purple, pink, white, red, gold and green – are symbolic in meaning and have been in use since the Middle Ages.  The exception is Good Friday when there are no colours at all.  The altar and the lectern are stripped bare, in mourning for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Purple is a royal, imperial colour.  In ancient times, Tyrian purple, made from a secretion produced by particular species of sea snail, was a difficult and, therefore, expensive dye to produce.  It was also highly valued because it didn’t fade.   Its use became a status symbol which was restricted by the time of Jesus’ birth to the most senior of Roman officials.  And by the 4th century AD only the Emperor was entitled to wear Tyrian purple.  In the New Testament we hear of Lydia of Thyatira who was a dealer in purple cloth.  Lydia and her family became Christians after hearing Paul speak by the riverside at Philippi in Macedonia – ‘The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.  When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home’ (Acts 16.14-15).

Purple then is a fitting colour for Christ the King, the son of God and is used for the season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas and which mark the beginning of the churches year.  The word, ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin, meaning ‘to come’.  The year begins then in expectation and hope, awaiting the birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem.

Advent, however, not only looks forward to Christmas, to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, it also looks beyond the stable and the manger, beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the second coming, to Jesus revealed in all his splendour and majesty, to God’s kingdom finally being established here on earth.  We are exhorted then on Advent Sunday to wake up, to ‘stay alert’, like the watchmen on the walls, to be ready for that second coming.  As St Paul tells us ‘the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost over; the day is almost here.  So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light’ (Romans 13.11-12).

In St Disen’s Church, these two aspects of Jesus; Christ the child and Christ the King are depicted in the east and west windows respectively.  Between them, on top of the painted screen across the nave is a beautiful carving of Jesus on the cross, with Mary his mother, and the ‘beloved’ disciple, John on either side, a poignant reminder that God gave his only son to die for us, so that we might be saved and receive eternal life.  You can find out more about our stained glass here.

Purple though is also a sorrowful colour associated with mourning and, therefore, it is also used for the season of Lent.  In the western church, this is the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Eve (excluding Sundays).  The word Lent derives from the Old English lencten, to lengthen, referring here to the lengthening days of spring.

The season of Lent is a time of preparation and reflection, prior to the celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection at Easter.  The 40 days reflect the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness (Matthew 4.2).  Lent, therefore, is often marked by giving up something but it can also be a time to take up something instead.

Rose pink is a joyful colour, used to mark the third Sunday in Advent which is known as Gaudete Sunday.  So amongst the purple Advent candles there is often a pink one too.  ‘Gaudete’ is also from the Latin and means ‘rejoice’.  The name derives from the first line of the introduction of the day’s Catholic mass, ‘Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete’ which translates as ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice’.  Gaudete Sunday then invites us to look forward to Christmas with joyous anticipation.  As that wonderful Advent hymn begins:

‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear.  Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel’.

Advent was once a much more sober, penitential time than it is today and so Gaudete Sunday was an uplifting day during what was otherwise a rather sombre period.

Similarly, the third Sunday of Lent is Refreshment Sunday, and as its name implies it enables us to pause in the Lenten journey.  It is also known as Mothering Sunday.  And in the same way that pink is used for Gaudete Sunday, so pink may also be used for Mothering Sunday.  Mothering Sunday was originally a day honouring mother churches, the church where one was baptised and became a ‘child of the church’.

White is the colour of light and purity and symbolises the birth of Jesus as the light of the world; ‘The light [that] shines in the darkness’ (John 1.5); a lamp for [our] feet, a light on [our] path (Psalm 119.105).  As Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (John 8.12).   White then is the colour for Christmas Day, the colour of the central candle in the Advent Wreath which is lit on Christmas morning.     

Christmas is not just a time of parties, presents, decorations and food, although it’s why we have them.  It’s about celebrating the birth of Jesus.  Christmas Day marks a beginning, as Christ’s birth changed everything for everyone for ever.   ‘See I am doing a new thing.  Now it springs up.  Do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43.19).

White may also used for the Sunday before Advent, the celebration of Christ the King.  The year then ends of a high note.  As the beginning of the churches year looks forward to the coming of Christ, both as the baby in the manger and Christ the King in all his glory at the second coming, so the year ends not with Jesus’ death upon the cross, nor even his resurrection but with that second coming, to Jesus revealed in all his splendour and majesty.

Red is the colour of blood.  It is used for those days commemorating martyrs.  It is then  the colour for 26th December, for the Feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death after being falsely accused of blasphemy (Acts 6.8-7.60).

Red is also the colour of fire and as such is used at Pentecost, symbolising the tongues of fire that rested upon each of the disciples as they were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.3-4).

The colour red also symbolises the passion of our Lord, from Palm Sunday to the Wednesday of Holy Week.  It marks the dramatic series of events that took place after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, when crowds gathered to cheer and strew palms before him.  From Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene, to Peter’s denial of knowing him, to his trial by Pontius Pilate who washed his hands of him and handed him over to the Jewish authorities to be crucified, to his humiliation by Roman soldiers who dressed him in a purple robe and placed a crown of thorns on his head and pretended to worship him.

Gold is associated with crowns and rich attire.  It was one of the three gifts brought by the wise men to Jesus:

‘Born a king on Bethlehem plain, Gold I bring to crown him again – King for ever, ceasing never, Over us all to reign’.

 Gold is the colour for Easter Day, the greatest of the Christian festivals, celebrating the day of Jeus’ resurrection from the dead three days after he was crucified.  It is a day of celebration after the mourning of Good Friday and the uncertainty of Easter Saturday.  As we sing on Easter morning:

‘Jesus Christ is risen to-day, Our triumphant holy day. Who did once, upon the cross, suffer to redeem our loss… But the pains that he endured our salvation have procured; Now above the sky he’s King, where the angels ever sing’.

Green is the colour generally used for those weeks outside those special times that mark key events in the church’s year.  In particular it is used for Ordinary Time, the long period between Pentecost and Advent.  It is the colour of leaves and grass and symbolises new life, growth and hope reminding us not only of God’s creation of the world but also our own growth in faith and our hope in the new heaven and new earth.

It is represented in the Green Man, a carving often found in churches – we have one in St Disen’s.  The leafy branches coming from his mouth symbolise God’s words of creation and also the living word of God, Jesus.

So it is really not ordinary at all but rather extraordinary!

(with acknowledgement to the Diocese of Wenchoster, Delia Smith: Feast for Advent, Feast for Lent, Wikipedia, Canterbury Cathedral.  Biblical quotations are taken from the New International Version)