Red for the feast of martyrs

By Patricia Kasten | June 26, 2014

You’ll be seeing a lot of red this Sunday. The feast of Ss. Peter and Paul falls on a Sunday and replaces the celebration of the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Instead of green vestments, they are red.

Liturgically, red is the color of the Holy Spirit (who descended as fire upon the church on Pentecost) and of martyrs.

For its first 1,000 years, white was the only color used by the church at Mass and other liturgical celebrations. It is still the color of the alb, the vestment which symbolizes our baptism. As knighthood flourished in the Middle Ages, so did heraldry with its distinctive signs and varied colors — signaling allegiance to earthly lords.

This use of colored fabrics made its way into the church and brought white, green, purple and red.

At Sunday Mass, we see green most often, since “Ordinary Time” (from the Latin for “proper order,” not “mundane” or “everyday”) takes up most of the calendar. Then follows white: for feasts of Christ and of saints. Purples are for Advent and Lent.
In the church calendar, only three seasonal feasts use red for vestments, altar cloths and liturgical decoration: Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, Good Friday, and Pentecost. Red symbolizes the intense love by which God brought about salvation.

Red has a fourth use in liturgy, and this is why we see it this weekend. Red is used for the feasts of apostles, evangelists and martyrs.

Peter and Paul were martyred: Peter by crucifixion, Paul by beheading. Both died in Rome. If you visit St. Peter’s Basilica, you will see colossal statues of them at the base of the steps leading to the basilica.

This weekend, priests and deacons will wear red. Look around for more shades of red. Many statues and stained glass window saints sport martyr red, showing the ardor of their faith. The church gains new martyrs each year, those who die as witnesses to Christ. Tertullian, writing in the second century, said the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.

Today, cardinals wear red because they are charged with protecting Christ’s flock, “even to the shedding of their own blood.” Interestingly, the purple worn by bishops and archbishops (called “amaranth red”) blends red-purple and scarlet in a unique shade that is meant to remind them that they carry the same responsibility.

Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of “Linking Your Beads: The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers.”

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