The colours of the church year - original by Robert Hodge
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The use of colours

The use of different colours to mark the seasons of the Church year and to highlight feasts and festivals has evolved since the very earliest age of Christianity and was standardized in the middle of the sixteenth century.

Colour helps to give some sense to the passage of time through the liturgical year and gives additional expression to the specific character of the mysteries of faith that are being celebrated.

Green
Purple
Red
White
Gold
Black
Rose
Lent Array
Blue

Green

Green is the colour of living things and God's creation and symbolises growth.  It brings to mind the seasons of spring and summer and with that a sense of hope.  Green is the colour that is used in the season of Ordinary Time.  It is not simply a colour that is used when no other colour is appropriate, but rather a sign of life eternal.

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Purple

Purple was the most costly dye in the Early and Middle Ages and had come to be the symbol of kings.   It was also the colour of the garments put on Jesus when he was mocked (John 19:2) and came to be associated with penitence.  Over the years, it also symbolized preparation and mourning.

Purple is the colour that is used in Advent, given its traditional penitential or expectational nature.  It is also the colour associated with Lent, from Ash Wednesday onwards.  Traditionally, there was a distinction between the two with a more sombre deep bluish purple used in Advent and a more violet hue in Lent.

Nowadays, purple is often used instead of black for funerals and for All Soul's Day.

Red

The colour of blood, red is associated with the Passion of Our Lord and with martyrdom.  It is also the colour of fire and hence the colour linked with the Holy Spirit and the feast of Pentecost.

Red is the colour used on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week and is used on Good Friday for the liturgy.  Festivals of martyred saints, the Apostles (except for St John), Holy Cross Day and The Holy Innocents are all marked with the use of red. 

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White

White is the colour of purity and innocence.  White is the colour of light and hence the colour of triumph, joy and glory.  The season of Christmas, the season of Easter (including Maundy Thursday), feasts of Our Lord (other than the Passion), Trinity Sunday, All Saints Day, Christ the King, festivals and lesser festivals of the angels and saints who were not martyrs are all marked with white.

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Gold

Principal Feasts (such as Christmas Day, Epiphany, Ascension Day, All Saints Day etc) are often celebrated with the use of gold vestments and hangings.  However, historically, gold did not mean the colour gold but best, and gold could replace white, red or green. 

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Rose

Although not often seen, it was traditional to wear rose vestments forthe Third Sunday of Advent and the Fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Gaudete and Laetare Sundays respectively.  Even if rose coloured vestments are not used, one often sees a rose coloured candle on the advent wreath in place of one of the purple ones.

The use of rose dates back to when a golden rose was carried by the Pope (in 1051 Pope Leo IX called the custome 'an ancient institution') on the Fourth Sunday of Lent as  a symbol of joy and hope in the middle of Lent.  The custom spread to the Third Sunday of Advent which similarly is a day of anticipation and hope in the midst of an otherwise penitential time.

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Black

In the Western tradition, black is the colour of mourning and sorrow and was used on All Souls' Day, Good Friday.  It is the exact antithesis of white, which is the sum of all the colours, being the complete absence of colour.

Black has been largely replaced by purple and Good Friday - which is about Christ's sacrifice - is now symbolized by the use of red. 

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Lent Array

In traditional English use (originating with the Sarum rite), vestments of off-white or unbleached linen, burlap or sackcloth would be used to express the pentiential nature of Lent.  They would not necessarily be plain, but might be edged in black or purple.

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Blue

Blue was a traditional colour used in mediaeval times for Advent - though was a deep indigo hue, not a bright or pale blue.

Blue is also the colour traditionally associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary.    In the early middle ages, blue pigment from lapis lazuli was fabulously costly and was used in paintings of the Virgin as a sign of devotion.  

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