The colors of Lent: from pure white to black

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | February 22, 2022

We are used to one color during Lent, but if we look closely enough the season will remind us of several colors for spiritual reflection.

As we enter the season of Lent, vestment and other cloths used for the Mass change in color to purple. The shade of purple for Lent is reddish in tone, as opposed to the blue-tinted purple of Advent. This serves to remind us of the blood of Christ that was shed for us. Purple is considered a color of royalty because, in ancient times, it was rare and expensive.

We begin Lent on Ash Wednesday. The ashes that sign us with the cross are black and made by burning the old, dried palms from last year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. Just before Lent, many parishes collect old palms from members to burn to make ashes. Black is a traditional color of both mourning and repentance.

During Lent, some churches decorate with dried brown branches. These symbolize a waiting period as we look toward the new life of Easter. Also, as we listen to the readings for the First Sunday of Lent, we hear of Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the dust-filled desert. There Satan tempted him to turn stones into rich, brown bread (Lk 4:3).

On the Second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel is about the Transfiguration. To help his disciples prepare for his coming passion and death, Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain (often identified as Mount Tabor in Galilee). There, “his clothing became dazzling white” (Lk 9:29). White is the color of the Resurrection. It is the color we will use for vestments and altar cloths for the entire season of Easter, starting at the Easter Vigil on April 16.

Blue is probably the least evident color during Lent. However, blue is the color associated with water. And our holy water fonts — even with COVID-19 — have water to remind us of our baptism. On the Third Sunday of Lent, the Gospel used in parishes where people are preparing for entry into the church at the Vigil (Year A) tells of Jesus and the woman at the well. To her, Jesus offers “living water” (Jn 4). In the first reading (Ex 17:3-7), Moses strikes the rock at Horeb when the Israelites in the desert are suffering great thirst. This rock in the desert prefigures Christ.

Even though we do not use the green vestments of Ordinary Time during Lent, the color green is not completely gone. There will be green palms on Palm Sunday. In addition, for those parishes following the regular Year C cycle of readings, the Third Sunday of Lent tells of the burning bush for the first reading (Ex 3:1-8a). Moses was astonished that the green bush, though on fire, did not char.

On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we find ourselves with a color used only twice a year in the celebration of the liturgy: rose (sometimes seen as pink). It is Laetare Sunday, a point on the calendar that brings us halfway through Lent. Laetare comes from a Latin word meaning “rejoice.” If we look closely at the readings — both in Year A and Year C — the themes are full of rejoicing. David is anointed as king, a blind man regains his sight, the Israelites celebrate their first Passover in the Promised Land and the Prodigal Son returns home to the joy of his father.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent might seem a bit gray. The readings for Year A speak of graves and bones: Ezekiel sees a vision of the dead rising from graves and John tells us of the resurrection of Lazarus, who has been in the tomb for four days “and by now there will be a stench.” In the readings for Year C, John’s Gospel tells us of the woman taken in adultery and the dust on the ground in which Jesus writes something. Whatever it is, it drives the angry mob away.

On Palm Sunday, the purple of Lent is again gone, replaced by red, the color of blood and the Lord’s Passion. This year, we hear Luke’s version of the Passion. On Good Friday, vestments are again red, as John’s account of the Passion is read. Besides being the color of blood, red is a passionate color and speaks of the fiery love of Christ for us — a love we can see in the well-known image of the Sacred Heart.

Then we will reach the end of Lent and traverse Holy Week. At the Easter Vigil, we see the color of resurrection: pure white. However, notice the golds in the threads of the vestments and on the thurible (which holds the burning incense), as well as the golden oils of baptism, anointing and the Holy Chrism. Gold, which does not tarnish, is a symbol of eternal life. 

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