Liturgical Colors by Father Block
One of the most obvious differences in the Mass from season to season and feast to feast is the color of the vestments worn by the priest and the covering over the chalice. The colors were not chosen by the Church at random, nor are they simply decoration, rather, each color has a special significance for the Mass, showing, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal teaches “to the specific character of the mysteries of faith being celebrated and to a sense of Christian life’s passage through the course of the liturgical year.” Knowing what each color means is helpful for focusing our hearts and minds during the Mass and uniting them to the Sacrifice of Jesus.
Just as love takes on a different character depending on the situation, and is manifested in different acts and virtues according to the need before it, so too, is the Mystery of Faith, the Sacrifice of Jesus expressed in a variety of ways. This is especially true as the Church follows Jesus throughout His life during the Liturgical Year, beginning with the wait for His Coming at Advent, continuing through His Baptism, preaching, suffering, death, and Resurrection, and finally the life of the Church.
Each of the colors lends to the Mass a certain flavor, a unique note, its own reminder of a particular gift from our Heavenly Father. In this way, they are a reminder and a call to awaken in our own hearts and attitudes differing response to a different reminder of grace.
White is a symbol of heavenly joy and glory. It is a reminder of Baptism, of grace, and the need for purity when we stand before God. Our Lord appeared in white robes at His Transfiguration, the angels at the tomb during the Resurrection wore white, and the Book of Revelation describes the saints wearing robes washed white in the Blood of the Lamb. As a reminder of the fact that Jesus becomes present on the Altar under the appearances of ordinary bread and wine, the color white is never lacking from the Altar or from some of the vestments of the priest. The color is used, then, for Christmas and Easter, for Masses of Our Lady, the Angels, and saints who were not martyred for their Faith. It is a reminder to appear in the Church with gratitude and joy, remembering the greatness of the Salvation that God offers us.
Red is the color of fire and of blood. Because of this, it becomes a reminder of love: the Love of Jesus in the shedding of His Blood to redeem us, and the love of the saints in response to the Love of God, given by God the Holy Spirit. It recalls the Pillar of Fire that led Israel from Egypt, the fire of the Sacrifices in the Temple, and the tongues of fire at Pentecost that showed the Presence of the Holy Spirit. Red is used on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday, on Pentecost, on the Feasts of the Apostles and Evangelists, and on the Feasts of the Martyrs. It is reminder for us to be on fire with love for God, and to be open to the promptings and whisperings of God.
Green is the color of life. It is the color of spring promising a harvest in the future, and, hence, is a symbol of hope. The Twenty-Third Psalm (“The Lord is My Shepherd”) recalls the green pastures of God, and many places in the Bible tell us that God Himself cares for us as a shepherd cares for His flock. Green is worn by the priest during Ordinary Time, when we wait for the Future Coming of Jesus. It is a reminder to entrust to the Good God all of our needs, and to look forward to the True Harvest, that of the Last Day and of Paradise.
Violet or purple, is a subdued color, yet it is not entirely dark. It is the color of ashes, and so is a reminder of penance, of the “sackcloth and ashes” put on in mourning for sin as we wait for the Salvation of Jesus. But is also the color of the first rays of dawn, as the darkness of night turns into morning, as we welcome the “Dawn from on High”, Jesus Christ. It is worn by the priest during Advent and Lent. It is a reminder of Holy Sorrow, a sorrow that leads to repentance, and a sorrow that is yet filled with joy because it loves and trusts God. It is a reminder to not look to the world for happiness, but to keep our eyes fixed on Heaven.
There are two more colors that are used, though more rarely. Rose (which often looks pink) is used on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, and the Third Sunday of Advent, as a first taste of the Joys of Christmas and Easter. The second is black, the color of death. It may be used at funerals to remind the living to have mercy on the souls of the dead by offering prayers for their help and comfort.
When we see the Vestments of the priest, then, we can tune our hearts and minds to the Mystery of the day, and begin to form ourselves according to the heart of the Church.