The church uses various colors (for clergy vestments, altar dressing, church decor, etc.) at different church seasons and occasions. The historic Church has long used color to set the theme of worship. Color usage was more diverse in the past, mainly because dyes were expensive and it wasn’t as easy as it is today to get fabric in any color.
In modern times, a consensus has developed about the use of colors in the western Church: green, purple, white, and red, with gold or ivory being alternatives to white. Protestant churches sometimes also use blue.
- Green is the default color. Green is the color of vegetation, therefore it is the color of life. Green is the color for the Season of Epiphany and the Season After Pentecost. These two seasons are also called ‘Ordinary Time’ because the Sundays have no names, just ordinal numbers.
- In antiquity, purple dye was very expensive, so purple came to signify wealth, power, and royalty. Therefore purple is the color for the seasons of Advent and Lent, which celebrate the coming of the King (although Blue is often used for Advent in many churches). Since as Christians we prepare for our King through reflection and repentance, purple has also become a penitential color.
The New Testament consistently uses white to describe angels and the risen Lord. In the ancient Church, people were given white robes as soon as they emerged from the waters of baptism. Therefore, white is the color for the seasons of Easter and Christmas. White is the color for funerals, since it is the color of the Resurrection, for weddings, regardless of the season, and sometimes for secular holidays that are observed in the church.
Red is the color of blood, and therefore also of martyrdom. Red is the color for any service that commemorates the death of a martyr. It is also an alternative color for the last week of Lent, which is called Holy Week. Red is the color for Pentecost Sunday and for ordinations and installations, because it is the color of fire and therefore also of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:3).
- Gold (special color)
Gold or ivory are alternatives to white.
Blue is an alternative to purple during Advent. Blue represents the Virgin Mary, because she is known as the Queen of Heaven and the sky is blue. Some Protestant churches just use blue during Advent to avoid the penitential connotation of purple.
- Black (special color)
- Black is the color of standard clerical dress, such as clergy clothing, cassocks, etc. Before the advent of modern dyes, all dress clothes were black—just look at any photograph taken in the 19th century. The main historical connotation of black is formality. Because black is not worn as often today, it has survived as a formal color only at extremely solemn occasions, such as funerals. For some people today, black immediately connotes a funeral. Black is sometimes, but rarely, the color for funeral services, Good Friday, and All Souls Day (2 November).
- Rose (special color)
Rose (that is, a shade of pink) is sometimes used on the third Sunday in Advent and the fourth Sunday in Lent. The use of the color rose has a strange origin. Long ago a custom was developed where some of the faithful were given roses on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Some clergy then began to wear rose-colored vestments on that Sunday. The effect was to give some relief to the solemnity of Lent, so this was a very popular custom. Originally, Advent was a solemn fast in preparation for Christmas, so the custom was extended to the third Sunday in Advent to liven it up a little bit, too. [Somewhere along the way the third candle of the Advent wreath turned pink as well]. Rose is an alternative color for the fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare Sunday) and the third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday).