Everywhere you look right now, you’ll see red and green. Store fronts, TV ads, newspapers and even city buses are adorned with red and green Christmas decorations.
Except in church — there we find the power of purple. From vestments to banners to the cords worn around the waists of altar servers, shades of purple can be seen everywhere.
Advent, the beginning of the church’s liturgical year, is one of two “purple times” during that church year. The other is Lent. In these two seasons — which together make up about 20 percent of the church calendar — vestments, auxiliary altar cloths and assorted other things in church are adorned in purple. As are the Advent candles — except one.
For the first centuries of the church, there were no particular colors used for the Mass. Then, in the Middle Ages, when the use of liturgical colors first developed, certain colors were used by knights and nobles in heraldry. Since ancient times, purple was the color of kings. The dye to make the color was rare and quite expensive.
In imperial Rome times, only the emperor wore purple. The dye used to make this “Tyrian purple” was hard to come by, made from a certain type of mollusk (harvested only in the city of Tyre along the Mediterranean Sea) — and thus quite expensive. So only royalty — those “born to the purple” — could afford it.
By the time of the Middle Ages — as new colors appeared in courts as emblems (starting in the early 12th century) — new colors also appeared in the church. And using royal purple to honor the coming Nativity of the Prince of Peace seemed only right.
According to the Dictionary of the Liturgy, “Colors have a symbolic meaning in liturgy. They suggest the mystery or the feast (of the day) or signify the sentiment of the special occasion for which the Mass is celebrated.” It is interesting to note that the Orthodox churches of the East do not use liturgical colors, although eastern churches in union with Rome — such as the Byzantine rite — do.
Even though Lent and Advent both use the color purple — the church distinguishes two different types of purple for these two different seasons.
Purples with red tones are the colors of Lent, and are seen as more penitential in nature. It is correctly termed “Roman purple.” The red tones also remind us of the color of blood, such as that shed by Christ.
The blue-purples are reserved for Advent. The addition of blue tones to royal purple for Advent brings us a sense of expectancy, a waiting for the arrival of the Lord, both in history and at the end of time.
Blue, however, has not been an accepted liturgical color. For those desiring to use blue, perhaps to acknowledge the Virgin Mary’s role in Advent, it is possible to introduce blue into other areas of the church that are not specifically related to the liturgical celebration, such as in the gathering area. (Certain countries, especially in Spain and some of its former colonies, have special permission to use blue on some Marian feast.)
Pink, on the other hand, is a liturgical color. We use it twice a year. Actually, the correct term is “rose” and not “pink,” but some of it might look lighter in shade than a red-toned rose.
Rose represents rejoicing, and is used on the Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete Sunday) and the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare Sunday). Both are Latin words for rejoicing, with slight differences: gaudete means “enjoy” and laetare means “be light-hearted.” Both connote specific times of church rejoicing.
While the origin of using a rose color for vestments is unclear, there may be a connection to the tradition of “the Golden Rose,” a gift sent by the pope, on Laetare Sunday, to religious shrines, Catholic kings and queens or other Catholic individuals. These people have included Isabella I, Queen of Spain, in 1492 and Mary, Queen of England and daughter of Henry VIII, in 1533.
In November 2013, Pope Francis sent a golden rose to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The pope prayed that the rose would remind the Virgin Mother of “the gold, frankincense, and myrrh offered by the magi who once hastened to the manger to adore the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
The rose color even extends to the Advent wreath, with its three Advent-purple candles and one pink candle. The pink candle is lit on Gaudete Sunday. This candle is sometimes called “the shepherd’s candle” because it reminds us of those who waited outside the town of Bethlehem for the words of an angel: “I bring you tidings of great joy.”
Sources: Catholic News Agency; “The Church Visible”; the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy; “Principles of Liturgy”; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “General Instruction of the Roman Missal”; “Christianity” at about.com; “Why Do Catholics Do That?” and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at elca.org.