Colors play an important part of the worship of the Church. They change according to the seasons of the Church year. Colors are a primary source of symbolism, and as such tell us much about what we believe about the lessons we hear during the Liturgy of the Word (which are themed according to the seasons), and about what we do during worship.
There are five basic liturgical colors: Blue, White, Green, Purple, and Red.
Advent – Blue
Following the tradition of the Sarum Rite (an old English rite), Blue is the color for Advent. During the Middle Ages, when blue was an expensive color to reproduce, purple was often used instead. This is why you still see some churches using purple in Advent. Also, purple was used by churches that followed the Roman rite as opposed to the Sarum Rite. Theologically, however, blue is the proper color for this season, because Blue is the color of the Blessed Virgin, and Advent is all about Mary as we await with her the arrival of the Incarnate God. Blue is the color of hope, expectation, confidence, and anticipation. These are all adjectives which describe the season of Advent.
Christmas and Easter – White
White is the color of both Easter and Christmas. It is the color of celebration, joy, and peace in the western world. With the color gold, white symbolizes the greatest work of God in the world, specifically His incarnation into this world at Christmas, and His triumph over death and evil at Easter. White is the color used for funerals, as we celebrate the passage of another soul into the Kingdom of God. Likewise, it is the color of baptisms and weddings, as we celebrate the arrival of another child of God into his household of faith, and as we celebrate the union of soulmates into one family in the eyes of God.
Epiphany and Pentecost (Ordinary Time) – Green
Green is the color of revelatory experience, and so is the color of the feasts that celebrate God’s revelation to mankind: Epiphany and Pentecost. Epiphany, the season after Christmas, celebrates Christ’s revelation as the Incarnate God to the Gentiles. Pentecost occurs after the Easter season and includes Trinity Sunday (return to white), which celebrates the revelation of the One Eternal God as revealed in the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The season falls within the late Spring and Summer months, when we see the natural world grow green with leaves, vines, and crops. Therefore, green symbolizes our own spiritual growth in Christ, nurtured by the Church and the Gospels.
Lent – Purple
Purple is the color of humility, penance, and wisdom that comes from inward discernment. It is also the color of royalty. The extreme differences between the two (humility and royalty) express one of the great lessons of Lent: Christ as the servant-king and our endurance to be as such to the world as well. In penitential theology, purple is the color of inward reflection, which is one of the important things we are called to do each Lent in preparation for Easter.
Holy Week and Pentecost Sunday – Red
Red is the color of excitement, energy, power, and all things intense and passionate. As such, red is the color of the Holy Spirit. It calls to mind the flames that descended upon the Church at the Day of Pentecost, and so is the color of the Feast of Pentecost. It is also used on Palm Sunday and during Holy Week, recalling the work of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and His Passion. Red is the color of the Holy Order of Bishops, and so is used for all Episcopal visitations and offices (consecrations, ordinations, and confirmations), using a bright, primary red. Finally, red is used for the commemoration of all martyred saints. Red recalls the blood shed for the Faith and the Church.
Good Friday – Black
Black is generally used on only one day of the year: Good Friday. It is the color of extreme, deep sorrow. Good Friday is the only day of the year that such sorrow is expressed in the Church. Black is appropriate for the first of only two days of the year on which the celebration of the Holy Eucharist is forbidden. On Good Friday, the altar is usually kept stripped. However, if Communion is to be received from the reserved Sacrament (there is never the celebration of the Eucharist on either Good Friday or Holy Saturday), the altar may be adorned in hangings with black. Since Communion is never received – even from the Reserve – on Holy Saturday, the altar remains stripped with no hangings at all. Should an individual community decide to keep black hangings on the altar during Holy Saturday, they should be removed by sundown, which the beginning of the Easter Vigil. (Note: Black is not appropriate for Christian funerals, as Christian funeral rites are Easter liturgies – and so white is more appropriately used).