Are there two types of purple used in church? And does it really matter which?
This was a question that appeared during Advent on a Facebook post.
In preschool, we learned how to make purple. Take red and blue finger paint — then make a mess. The result was purple — but what shades of purple! Lilac and lavender, plum and magenta.
It’s a bit the same with liturgical purple used in church.
First, only white
When the church began to develop the structure of liturgy, the color of vestments was not important. For the first centuries, there were no particular colors used for the Mass. White was the color of the baptized. Then, in the Middle Ages, use of liturgical colors developed and certain colors were chosen because they were favored by knights and nobles.
Liturgical colors are those we see on vestments at Mass. The color represents the season of the liturgical year. For example, in Ordinary Time, the priest wears green vestments — as do the deacon (stole and dalmatic) and altar servers (the cord tying their albs). The season is also reflected in church decorations. So you may see banners of the same color and the ambo draped in it. Even the altar cloth can reflect the liturgical color. These are white, green, red and purple.
Liturgical green is green — even if there are various shades. Likewise, red is red and white is white. However, purple (referred to as “violet” in liturgical publications) is another color entirely.
Two different colors
Yes, there are two purples used in the liturgical year: one for Advent and one for Lent. And they are quite different.
In ancient times, purple was the color of kings. The dye used to make the color was rare and expensive. In the days of imperial Rome — and, later, the Byzantine Empire — only the emperor wore purple. The dye that made “Tyrian purple” was hard to come by because it came from a type of mollusk harvested only in the city of Tyre along the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, only royalty — those “born to the purple” — could afford it.
The word “purple” itself comes from this Mediterranean dye. The Latin purpura refers both to purple dye and the shellfish used to make that dye. It is a reddish-purple in hue and this is the color that became the purple of Lent.
The U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy 1988 newsletter recommended “taking advantage of the varying shades which exist for violet” for representing the two seasons — showing how Advent and Lent are linked, yet differently, in recalling the events of salvation history: the birth of Christ, and his Passion, death and Resurrection.
Purples with red tones are correctly termed “Roman purple.” The red tones remind us of the blood that was shed by Christ and red tones make this the purple for Lent.
To remember why red is in the purple of Lent, think about the color of Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Red vestments symbolize blood. It is interesting here to note that the purple color worn by bishops and archbishops is called “amaranth red.” It is a blend of red, purple and scarlet. It serves to remind bishops that they are shepherds, charged by Christ to protect their flocks “even to the shedding of their own blood.”
The blue-purples are reserved for Advent. Blue, unlike red, is not an accepted liturgical color, except for special instances involving the Virgin Mary.
How can you remember that blue is the tone for Advent’s purple?
It does help that blue is traditionally associated with Mary, who has a prominent role in Advent. While Eastern Rite churches do not use liturgical colors, they do have rules about the colors used in icons (sacred images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints). In icons, Mary always wears blue. Blue symbolizes heaven in icons and Mary was clothed in heaven when the Holy Spirit descended upon her.
Another way to remember Advent’s purple is “the blue hour.” Each day has two times when purple drapes the sky: at twilight, just before sunrise and after sunset. Twilight is known as “the blue hour” by artists and photographers because of the softness of light and prominence of blue tones.
Advent is a twilight time, when a hush falls as we await for the coming of the sun — and the Son of God — both in history, in our own lives and at the end of time.
So, does the choice of purple matter? It does because it serves to draw us into deeper understandings of how God’s salvation works in our lives.
Sources: digital-photograhy-school.com; etymonline.com; The Church Visible; usccb.org; Principles of Liturgy; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; the Catholic Encyclopedia; and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal