How many of you have sat in church and wondered why the color of the pulpit, lectern and altar cloths have changed? Those who have been a member of the Diaconate may know because it is their responsibility to insure the proper colors are being used for the specific time in our church year. But what about the rest of us?
The use of different colors to distinguish the different liturgical (having to do with rites for public worship) seasons was a common practice in Western churches beginning in the fourth century. Pope Innocent III devised a system of using five colors: Violet, White, Black, Red and Green. After the Reformation when the Lutheran and Anglican churches emerged, the colors disappeared. However, in the 20th century, the ecumenical Liturgical Movement resurrected the ancient Christian ritual and added blue and gold.
The colors are used to heighten visual expression of emotions and ideas that are part of each season of the liturgical year. Violet is the ancient royal color and symbolizes the sovereignty of Christ, and is also associated with the repentance of sin. White and gold symbolize the brightness or light of day or purity. Black is the traditional color of Christ’s death on the cross. Red is the color associated with fire and the Holy Spirit. Green symbolizes growth. Blue symbolizes the color of the sky and also honors Mary. UCC churches, like ourselves, have freedom to use any combination of colors (or none) which suits our worship. However, many UCC churches continue to use the traditional colors which connect us to the larger body of Christian believers.
Let’s begin with Lent, on Ash Wednesday. Most of this time is symbolized by violet with black for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Some churches have begun to use brown, beige or gray cloth similar to burlap to reflect a mood of penitence and simplicity. Historically, Lent is a time of self-examination, prayer, fasting and works of love. As individuals, we are to reflect on our desire and preparation to follow Jesus to his death on the cross.
Going forward into the liturgical year, Palm Sunday and the next three days is usually marked by using the color red. Red is associated with blood and martyrs. White or gold can be used on Maundy Thursday as a sign of rejoicing in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The altar may take a drastic turn after Maundy Thursday and be stripped bare as that of the empty tomb. “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” is proclaimed on Easter when the liturgical color can be either white or gold. Red follows being used on Pentecost Sunday (this coming Sunday) reminding us of the fire descending upon us as the Holy Spirit.
The longest liturgical season is known as Ordinary Time. It is made up of the Sundays between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday (which can also be celebrated as the Sundays After Epiphany using white) and the Sundays after Pentecost to Advent. During this time, we explore the mission of the church, and green is used to symbolize growth.
Advent is the time we prepare for Christ’s birth and his coming reign. Purple is normally the liturgical color since it symbolizes royalty and Christ’s sovereignty. Although deep blue can also be used since it is the color of the night sky (Bethlehem star, heaven) or the color associated with Mary as she waits for the birth of Jesus. White is being used more often since it represents joy in the light of day. The liturgical season has come full circle.
Let the color of the liturgical season wash over you as you worship throughout the year.
Color is a power which directly influences the soul. Wassily Kandinksy