“They accompany us in our own journey of faith.”
The Church yesterday celebrated Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in the season of Advent. It is one of two days in the church calendar, during which the clergy don pink, or rather rose vestments. With the brewing elections next year, many among the clergy were quick to point out that the use of pink vestments was bereft of any political significance – it was simply the assigned liturgical color of the day.
The use of pink or ‘rose’ signifies a break in the stringent penitential character of the liturgical season – on Gaudete Sunday during Advent and Laetare Sunday during Lent. Traditionally, the liturgical seasons observed in preparation for the feasts of Christmas and Easter required several days of fasting and abstinence. However, during these two days, the penitential observances were relaxed at least for a day, in a way anticipating the impending solemnities of the liturgical year.
Since the fourth century, liturgical colors have become an important feature of Catholic worship. It does not only add up to the external imagery of Christian worship, it also highlights the religious meaning of a particular season. For example, violet or purple signifies penance, while green represents hope and white symbolizes joy. Red is used in honor of the Holy Spirit as well as the apostles and martyrs. Each season of the liturgical year has a color, and every color has a meaning. Hence, the use of liturgical colors is not merely decorative, it is basically a concrete expression of the ‘incarnational’ character of the Christian religion.
In the Middle Ages, one can infer that the use of certain liturgical colors for specific liturgical feast days or even particular rites and sacraments was a practical way for the Church to educate and attune the attention of the faithful to the deeper significance of each part of the liturgical year – in relation not only to the history of Christian salvation, but more importantly in one’s spiritual growth and maturity. After all, the feast days of the liturgical year were far from just one-time remembrances, for in the Christian sense, these observances provide the faithful an opportunity to ‘re-live’ the mysteries of the Christian faith, as if the past episodes of Christian history continue to be a constant and living reality in the life of the Church.
Thus, while the use of ‘rose’ vestments may signify a momentary respite from the penitential season of Advent, it also anticipates the joy of Christmas. Similarly, it emphasizes that in the midst of whatever difficulties or challenges that we may encounter every day, it does not distract from the certain possibility of joy and happiness. Unlike the Puritan tendencies of other Christian groups, the Catholic faith has an innate tendency to embrace secular cultures and practices and weave them as effective expressions of faith.
There is one more truth to the use of liturgical colors – that they are visible signs of the presence and the present of the Catholic faith. Presence, in the sense that the colors of the liturgical year remind us that our yearly rhythm of fasts and seasons affirm that our faith points out to the continuing presence of Christ in time. The celebration of Christmas and Easter are not simply empty remembrances of past history, but they celebrate the living truths of our faith.
Secondly, the liturgical colors signify the present of the Catholic faith. The chronology of feasts spread throughout the liturgical year reminds the faithful that the faith remains to be a reality that is ‘ever ancient’ and ‘ever new.’ Every liturgical color highlights the spiritual meaning of each liturgical season and provides context to the prayers and rites appropriate for each part of the church year. Hence, purple is usually associated with prayers of pain or penance, black with grief and death, and white with praise and thanksgiving. The congruence of the Christian faith with the calendar year underscores that our faith is not remote nor detached from our everyday lives, but is woven even to the most mundane of our human experience.
In the same manner, the liturgical colors do not only orient us to the seasons, or propel a renewed appreciation for the aesthetic dimensions of worship. They also accompany us in our own journey of faith. In marking the important dates in the life of Christ, they also invite us to look into our own growth in the faith. They serve as powerful visible signs of the mysteries of faith, and convey the context of these truths in our own spiritual lives.