When a church sets up it’s furniture, the coverings used for tables and altars, it’s wall hangings and even the clothing people leading worship wear, they have to use some color. It seems logical, therefore, that the church would choose colors which represent something. Since the Protestant tradition in which I was raised never used color in this way, when I started working for a Lutheran Church it was fascinating to learn about the use of color in their worship. Colors used for their liturgical seasons represent emotions and ideas associated with these seasons.
In the Lutheran tradition, specific colors are used for vestments and paraments (clergy clothing and coverings on the altar). While the current system of colors developed gradually over many generations, the Christian church has used color from the earliest days to represent holiday and worship themes. In the early church, dyes were expensive, so it wasn’t easy to get fabric in a huge array of colors as we can today. Some colors were chosen for their rarity and cost to honor the King of kings.
Since God directed His people to worship with every part of their being, the senses must be included. Liturgical colors help worshipers accomplish this. Today the Lutheran Church (like several other traditions) still uses color to symbolize the seasons of the church year, and most are the same colors chosen by believers centuries ago. Here is a list of the liturgical colors used and the reasons they were chosen:
Green is the most frequently used color for church coverings, and is proper for any day when no specific season is in effect. Green was chosen for this role as it has traditionally been considered the color of life, the symbol of vegetation and growing things. Therefore, it represents our growth in faith as we follow Jesus. The times in the Church year between special seasons is sometimes called “Ordinary Time” because these Sundays have no seasonal names. Instead, these “extra” Sundays are designated solely by “ordinal” numbers-hence the term “ordinary.” Green is also used specifically during the seasons after Epiphany and after Pentecost.
White has long been considered the color of purity and innocence. Over the years, it also came to symbolize joy. In the New Testament angels are depicted as wearing white-so does Jesus when He appears in heaven in John’s Revelation of the future. In the early church people were given white tunics when they emerged from the waters of baptism, symbolizing their cleansing, joy and holiness. White is the traditional color for weddings. Like the white wedding dress, white coverings symbolize purity and joy as the couple becomes united. White can also be used during the celebration of secular holidays. White used at Christmas represents the purity of Christ and our joy resulting from His arrival.
When you think of red you generally think of blood, so the church has chosen to use this color to represent martyrdom. Scarlet is the preferred color of the first day of Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter), as it suggests the deep color of blood. It is also the color for any services commemorating a martyr. A different shade of red is the color for Pentecost because it symbolizes the tongues of fire that descended during the very first Pentecost. This red is usually brighter than the deep rich red that symbolizes blood. This bright red is also used for ordinations, again because it represents the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In early church history, purple dye was very difficult to make and the source (shellfish) was rare. Purple cloth was extremely expensive and only available to the very wealthy. As a result, the color became associated with royalty. Purple was chosen by the church for those special seasons which celebrate Jesus’ role as King of kings. These seasons are Advent and Lent. Purple, a deep passionate color, can also symbolize pain and suffering, another emotion relating to Lent.
Before modern dyes made colored clothing readily available, all dress clothes were black. Black is still the traditional color of formality. Because we have so many color choices today, we rarely wear black, so it has remained largely a formal color. In our culture it is generally associated with death and mourning, so the Church uses it for funeral services. This is also the reason black is the color used for Good Friday-but only to wrap around the cross. On this somber occasion alone, the altar is stripped of all coverings and left unadorned. Black is also the preferred color for Ash Wednesday, since it is the color of the ashes to which we will all return.
Gold or ivory are permissible as alternatives to white. At Faith Lutheran we use them on our Christmas trees as the colors of our Crismons (traditional liturgical ornaments). Easter is one of the 2 most special occasions in the Church, and on this one day of the year, gold is often used in the coverings. It is the alternative to white, but is often used on Easter as an accent color running through a white cloth.
The color blue is sometimes used in Lutheran churches, instead of the traditional purple, during the Advent season. This idea originated in Scandinavia, probably because purple dye was too expensive for most churches at that time. Additionally, blue is a symbol of the sky (and hence, heaven) and of hope, which are primary themes during Advent.
Understanding the meaning behind the colors used during specific Church seasons makes worship more meaningful for many Lutherans. Even those outside the Lutheran tradition can appreciate the significance of color in a worship service.