Colors communicate a message based on our experiences and emotions. For example, the color red is associated with blood or fire, the color green with growth. The church has passed down a tradition of using different colors during different seasons of the church year to help communicate certain messages about the Christian faith.
The colors of the church year are displayed on paraments, vestments, altar cloths, and banners. The traditional colors of the church year are as follows:
White – White signifies holiness, purity, joy, light, and celebration. White reminds us of the holiness of God. It is used on days and during seasons associated with key events in the life of Jesus: his birth, epiphany, baptism, transfiguration, and resurrection. It is used on Trinity Sunday and on days dedicated to non-martyred saints. White is also associated with baptism when we are covered with Christ’s righteousness. The Latin word for white is “alba.” The word “alb,” the white gown worn by those leading and serving in worship services comes from the word “alba.”
Green – Green depicts growth and maturity. The church uses green during the seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost. During the season of Epiphany, we remember that Christ came for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. The season of Pentecost reminds us of how the church grew when the apostles proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ, how it has continued to grow as the Holy Spirit has worked through the spreading of the good news, and how God wants our faith to grow as we receive his Word and Sacraments.
Blue – Blue is a color of hope and anticipation. The color blue is used during the season of Advent as we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth as the hope of the whole world and as we look forward with anticipation to his second coming. Blue has also become the color associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus. In paintings, she is often depicted wearing a blue garment.
Purple – The color purple has traditionally been used as a penitential color, a color of repentance. The deep color represents the sorrow of the sinner. Purple is the color for the season of Lent, a penitential season, and in some congregations it is still the color for the season of Advent, which was originally also a penitential season. The color purple is used for times of confession and absolution and occasionally for funerals. At the time of Jesus, purple was the most costly color to produce. To own a piece of purple cloth a person would have had to be very wealthy, such as royalty, or have sacrificed a lot to purchase a purple garment. Christ is the King of Kings and sacrificed his life so that we so that we too might be clothed in a royal garment.
Red – The color red is associated with blood and fire. Red is used on days when the church remembers the blood shed by a saint who was martyred for the faith, for example, Saint Peter or Saint Paul. Red reminds us that God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and led the people of Israel by a pillar of fire by night, and the Holy Spirit appeared as tongues of fire on the Day of Pentecost. Red reminds us of the power of the Holy Spirit working in the church. Red is used on the Day of Pentecost, Reformation Day, and for congregations’ special celebrations such as the dedication of a new congregation, an anniversary of a congregation, and ordinations and installations of pastors. These are seen as evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of God’s people.
Gold – Gold is associated with riches and the adornments of royalty. It is the alternate color for Christmas and Easter and is sometimes used on Trinity Sunday and on the last Sunday of the church year if it is celebrated as Christ the King Sunday.
Scarlet – Scarlet is a deep, almost blood red. It is used during Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday.
Black – Black is the most somber of all the church year colors. It is traditionally used only on two days of the year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Black is the absence of light. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday remind us of the great sacrifice of Christ as the sky turned dark and hid the light of the sun during the last hours of Christ’s passion.