Throughout the year, we present an article in the bulletin each week on a variety of topics, written by a member of our Parish staff on a rotating basis.
by Orin Johnson
We are all familiar with the expression “true colors,” when someone lets their “real selves” finally show through their usual outward expressions of self and reveals more of their heart and soul to the community. Sometimes someone’s “true colors” show them to be a much more caring and warmer person than their usual hard and cold exterior; sometimes those true colors show someone to be much more hard, judgmental, and angry than their exterior. (None of this, of course, has anything to do with a person’s skin color!)
The liturgy itself has true colors too — colors about to change in a couple weeks’ time — which reveal something of the inner character of the celebration or season. White is used as a color of resurrection and new life; violet for penitence; red for the blood of martyrs or the fire of the Spirit; green in ordinary time symbolizes life and hope.
Yet the symbolism of colors can sometimes be problematic, especially in a global church with cultures and peoples with customs and practices very different than the Roman/European one which became foundational in our liturgical practices. In China, Korea, and some other Asian countries, white represents death, mourning, and bad luck, and is traditionally worn at funerals — not as a symbol of resurrection, but in the same way that mourners in America wear black at funerals. And in some cases, where white is used to indicate purity (along the lines of the customary white wedding dress), such symbolism instantly becomes very problematic when thinking racially.
There are two lesser-used liturgical colors too, rose and black. Black especially had been nearly forgotten for many years, but is, in some instances, returning, at least to vestments. As already noted, black is symbolic of death and mourning (and therefore, again, potentially problematic in a racial context). It may be used at funeral Masses, the feast of All Souls (in a few weeks’ time) or the anniversary of the death of a loved one. Following Vatican II, white is the preferred color since it reminds us of the Resurrection and our baptism.
A brief note too about silver and gold: one little-known tidbit awaits in the GIRM, to perhaps surprise us and expand or horizons. “The colors gold or silver may be worn on more solemn occasions in the Dioceses of the United States of America.” (GIRM, 346) In practice, gold and silver have become a sort of “super-white” then, perhaps worn for Christmas, Easter, or a local patronal feast. Now, how it came to be in the United States that enough places were using gold and silver vestments that it became a part of the nation’s liturgical law (but not universal law) is a matter for more academic writing and more space on the page than this column affords.
When we use and talk about liturgical colors and symbolism, let us be mindful of the intended representations, the potential difficult other meanings, and all the options available to more fully celebrate liturgy Sunday by Sunday, feast by feast, season by season.