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The Colour Purple
The Colour Purple
Purple or violet is the prescribed liturgical colour for Lent. Purple is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion; because it is the royal colour, it also celebrates Christ's resurrection and sovereignty.
On Passion/Palm Sunday, the Lenten purple is replaced by red, the colour traditionally associated with sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of life.
The practice of using different colours for vestments and other liturgical objects during the various seasons of the church year seems to have begun in Jerusalem in the 12th century. As the custom spread, usage varied considerably. The liturgical colours were standardised throughout the church in the period after the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. This is basically the pattern followed in the Church today.
According to the current General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the purpose of the variety of colour of the sacred vestments is to express outwardly the specific character of the mysteries of faith being celebrated and to give a sense of the passage of the Christian life throughout the course of the liturgical year. (GIRM 2000 #345)
The four basic liturgical colours are white, red, green and purple. White is used during the Easter and Christmas seasons, on feasts of the Lord, of Mary and of Saints who were not martyrs, and on other special solemnities. Red is used on Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Pentecost and on feasts of martyrs.
Green is used throughout Ordinary Time and violet or purple in Advent and Lent. Rose may be used on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent) and Laetara Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent). Until relatively recently, black was the colour for funerals and Masses for the dead. It has been replaced by white, the symbolic colour of resurrection.
The colours express emotions and ideas that are associated with each of the seasons of the liturgical year. Violet is the ancient royal colour and therefore a symbol of the sovereignty of Christ; it is also associated with sorrow and repentance from sin. White symbolises innocence and purity and because white (and/or gold) reminds us of the brightness of day, it is the colour of victory, joy and resurrection. Red evokes the colour of blood and therefore is the colour of martyrs and of Christ's death on the Cross. It also symbolises fire so is used to represent the Holy Spirit. Green is the colour of growth and evokes feelings of hope, increase, life, fidelity.
On solemn occasions it is allowable to wear vestments that are more precious even if not the colour of the day (GIRM 2000 # 346g). There are similar conventions regarding colour in secular dress. For example, while black generally expresses sorrowand mourning in Western culture, it is also regarded as particularly elegant on formal occasions when a man might wear a black tuxedo and a woman a ‘little black dress’. The quality of the fabric and the style or cut of the garment are at least as important as the colour, perhaps more so. And this applies to liturgical vesture as well.
The use of purple vestments and hangings in Lent helps to evoke visually a mood of simplicity and austerity, so adding symbols to them is unnecessary and distracting. The colour purple is the symbol.