Q — We see our liturgical colors have changed. What is the meaning and symbolism of each of our colors through the year?
A — Liturgical colors are used for vestments in the celebration of the liturgy. At a basic level, they make us aware of the changing seasons of the liturgical year — from the first Sunday of Advent to the celebration of Christ the King. They also remind us powerfully of the different seasons of our own lives in Christ. Catholicism engages all the senses as we deepen our awareness of and response to God.
Violet or purple is used during Advent and Lent. It signifies penance and preparation as we anticipate the joys of Christmas and Resurrection. During these times we endeavor to search our hearts and minds to eradicate those things that prevent us from more fully responding to God’s grace, the grace of his communing with us and us with him.
White essentially symbolizes joy, and is worn during the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Easter. Thus we are filled with joy at the Incarnation of the Word in our midst as a human being, and again as we celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord. Red stands for the shedding of blood and so has a special significance as we recall the Lord’s death. It is used primarily on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Red also has another level of meaning in our tradition. It symbolizes the transforming love of the Holy Spirit and so it is the liturgical color for Pentecost Sunday.
Green is the color of what is known as “Ordinary Time,” the liturgical season that begins after Pentecost and goes through to the celebration of Christ the King, immediately before Advent, when we begin the liturgical cycle all over again. Green is the color of emerging new life in the world of nature. And so the Holy Spirit, known in the creed as the “Life-Giver,” is often symbolized as green. Think, for example, of the “green” vesture of the Holy Spirit in Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit urges us, lures us on to new life, to an ever-renewed response in self-emptying love to the God whose very nature is Self-Emptying Love.