The Colours of Advent


Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of a new year - Year C - in the liturgical calendar of the Church.

I had a phonecall last week from a parish liturgy planner seeking my advice. She had rung a supplier of Christian goods to order blue candles to use for the parish Advent wreath this year. She was asked if she was an Anglican, since Catholics use purple candles at Advent, not blue ones!

Some people can be very rigid about what is 'liturgically correct' and what isn't. It is especially strange when a minor local custom becomes enshrined and defended vigorously while a practice that is strongly renounced in official liturgical documents - such as regularly giving out communion from the tabernacle instead of from what has been consecrated at Mass - continues unabated and uncondemned.

Regarding the Advent wreath, it is the light growing in intensity during Advent as an additional candle is lit each week that is the symbol, not the colour of the candle. The candles can be any colour, or a mixture of colours. It is not important.

In some parishes it has become traditional to use purple candles for the first, second and fourth Sundays and a rose candle for the third, or “Gaudete”, Sunday. Now that Advent no longer has a penitential focus, it is not necessary to set one Sunday apart from the rest for a bit of “light relief”. All Sundays are days of festivity in any case!

I know of a parish where the candles are four different shades of the one colour. The darkest is lit on the first Sunday of Advent, then the next darkest and so on, until the palest candle is lit on the fourth Sunday. This reinforces the concept of gradually moving from darkness into light with the coming of the one who is the light of the world at Christmas.

The liturgical colour for vestments and hangings in Advent is purple, as for Lent. However, the mood generated by the readings and texts for Advent is one of devout and joyful expectation – not penance. Hence many parishes have moved away from the heavy purple of Lent to lighter violet shades for Advent. It is also culturally appropriate. Our predominant colour during this time of year is blue – the blue of the summer sky and sea, of jacaranda and agapanthus. Besides, blue is Mary's colour, and it seems especially appropriate for this season with which Mary is so closely associated.

A most effective way of decorating the worship space for Advent is to hang drapes in various shades of blue and mauve, perhaps with a different panel of colour added each week. Such “progressive” symbols which visually represent the build up to Christmas work well in Advent. As explained above, it is the principle behind the lighting of the Advent candles.

The visual environment of our churches during Advent serves to remind us that we are people who “wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.”


Elizabeth Harrington