How do we make sense of liturgical colors and garb?
by St. Maggie | October 5, 2016Dear Maggie,
I was at an ordination Saturday and all of the new priests were vested in red stoles and red chasubles. The next day the priest celebrating the Eucharist was wearing green. Why the different colors and what do all those different liturgical wardrobe accessories mean anyway?
Dear Fashionably Flummoxed,
O me, all the garb and symbols of the church! There twas a day when clergy in America simply wore black cassocks and a surplice like many choir members wear now. But the ancient tradition of the church is to wear a white alb while serving at the Eucharistic table. In the first century an alb was simply a white tunic like folks would wear every day. When they were baptized they were baptized naked as a newborn. To keep from offendin folk they would baptize men, women, and children separately and put a white tunic (alb) on them as soon as they got out of the water. Priests and those serving at the altar continued to wear albs as symbols of baptism and the resurrection life those baptisms represent.
The stole was an ancient Roman accessory worn by public officials, but also by slaves. For the officials it would be like a badge to symbolize their authority. For the slaves it was a practical tool for cleaning things up. It’s a nice symbol for our clergy because they represent, like Jesus, leadership that is also servantship. There are even some churches today where a priest will use her stole to clean the dishes at the Eucharistic table!
Priests wear their stoles over their albs or over a cassock and surplus hanging straight down over their necks. Deacons wear their stoles over their left shoulder and tied at their right side.
The chasuble is a round garment with a hole in the middle worn by a priest, most often at the Eucharistic table. It was a garment worn by Roman citizens facing capital punishment by beheading and so it is associated with martyrdom—the idea that we should always be ready to die for Christ.
These are all traditions that have grown from the roots of Christianity in the Roman Empire. If Christianity had been born in Scotland then the altar party might be wearin kilts in liturgical plaid!
Now to the many colours of the church! We like to mark our seasons with different colors to show the full spectrum of God’s workin in the world. We begin with Advent where the color is sometimes purple, but increasingly blue. Purple is a color that traditionally marked mourning and penitence so it is used for Lent and also for Advent. Because of new historical insights and a desire to emphasize the Virgin Mary many churches are now using blue instead of purple. This is in part to emphasize Advent as a quiet but hopeful season rather than a more somber and penitential one. Get ten clergy in a room and throw out that topic and it will be worse than a pack a dogs fightin for a bone under the table.
Red represents the blood of the martyrs and the fire of the spirit so it is used for Pentecost, ordinations, Good Friday, and other days emphasizing either martyrdom (such as certain saints days) or the Holy Spirit.
White represents holiness, light and joy so it is used for major holidays like Christmas and Easter.
Green represents life after death and so is the color of choice for the Season After Pentecost.
There are whole books on all these colors and garb so I’ll leave it at that before I blab on and end up writin another one. I hope these answers help calm down your flummox over liturgical fashion!
Peace be to ya,