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The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons became a common practice in the Western church in about the fourth century. At first, usages varied considerably but by the 12th century Pope Innocent III systematized the use of five colors: Violet, White, Black, Red and Green. The Lutheran and Anglican churches that emerged from the Reformation retained the traditional colors but they disappeared entirely (along with most other ritual) from the worship of the Reformed churches. During the 20th century, the ecumenical Liturgical Movement prompted the rediscovery of ancient Christian ritual—including the traditional colors of the Western church. To these have been added Blue and Gold—colors that were used in some Western rites before the 12th century.
Briefly, the colors express emotions and ideas that are associated with each of the seasons of the liturgical year. Violet is the ancient royal color and therefore a symbol of the sovereignty of Christ. Violet is also associated with repentance from sin. White and Gold symbolize the brightness of day. Black is the traditional color of mourning in some cultures. Red evokes the color of blood, and therefore is the color of martyrs and of Christ’s death on the Cross. Red also symbolizes fire, and therefore is the color of the Holy Spirit. Green is the color of growth. Blue is the color of the sky and in some rites honors Mary.
Congregations in the United Church of Christ have the freedom to use any combination of colors (or no particular colors) as seems best to them. The use of traditional colors, however, connects us to the wider Body of Christ and provides worship planners with visual aids that mark the transition from one season to another. Colors can be used in altar and pulpit decorations, vestments, banners and tapestries.
Advent is a season of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ (Christmas) and looks forward to the future reign of Christ. Eschatological expectation rather than personal penitence is the central theme of the season. Advent is a preparation for rather than a celebration of Christmas, so Advent hymns should be sung instead of Christmas carols. The first Sunday of Advent is not the beginning of the Christmas season. The Christmas celebration begins on Christmas Eve and continues for the next “twelve days of Christmas.”
Purple is normally Advent’s liturgical color, associated both with the sovereignty of Christ and with penitence. Deep Blue is also sometimes used to distinguish the season from Lent. As the color of the night sky, Blue symbolizes Christ who in one ancient Advent song is called the “Dayspring” or source of day. As the color associated with Mary, Blue also reminds us that during Advent the church waits with Mary for the birth of Jesus.
Christmas and Christmas Season
The Lectionary readings for Christmas and the following twelve days (culminating in the feast of the Epiphany) invite the church to reflect on the Incarnation (or embodiment) of God as a human being: “The Word became a human being and lived among us, and we have seen his glory….” (John 1:14). In Christ, God enters human history and identifies fully with the human condition.
The traditional colors of the season are White or Gold, symbolizing joy in the light of day.
Season after Epiphany
The season following Epiphany continues the theme established on Epiphany Day: the spread of the Good News of Christ from its source in the Jewish community to all nations on earth. The Lectionary therefore explores the mission of the church in the world. The theme of this season (along with the sequence of readings from the Gospel) continues in the season after Pentecost, so both seasons together can be called the “Time of the Church.” The traditional liturgical color for both seasons, Green, is the color of growth.
The traditions of Lent are derived from the season’s origin as a time when the church prepared candidates, or “catechumens,” for their baptism into the Body of Christ. It eventually became a season of preparation not only for catechumens but also for the whole congregation. Self-examination, study, fasting, prayer and works of love are disciplines historically associated with Lent. Conversion—literally, the “turning around” or reorientation of our lives towards God—is the theme of Lent. Both as individuals and as a community, we look inward and reflect on our readiness to follow Jesus in his journey towards the cross. The forty days of Lent correspond to the forty-day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and the forty-year journey of Israel from slavery to a new community.
On Ash Wednesday, ashes are placed on the foreheads of the congregation as a symbol that we have come from dust and one day will return to dust. It is one of many Lenten and Easter customs that remind us of our historical connection with Jewish tradition. With this sobering reminder of life’s fragility, we begin a spiritual quest that continues until the Easter Vigil, when new members of the church are often baptised and the entire congregation joins in a reaffirmation of baptismal vows. Most of this time of preparation is symbolized by the color Violet, though the season is bracketed by the mourning Black of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. As an alternative to Violet, some churches have begun to use brown, beige or gray (the colors of rough unbleached cloth like burlap) to reflect the season’s mood of penitence and simplicity. The somber colors are a reminder of the unbleached “sackcloth” worn by mourners and penitents in the Jewish tradition.
Easter and Pentecost
Instead of finding a sealed tomb, the women who had come at dawn on Sunday are surprised by an angel who announces astonishing news: “Jesus has been raised from the dead” (Matt. 28:7). The heavenly messenger invites the mourners to see the empty tomb and then go and tell the disciples that the Crucified One is alive!
The season from Easter to Pentecost is also called the Great Fifty Days, a tradition inspired by the Jewish season of fifty days between Passover and Shavuot—the feast celebrating the giving of the Torah to Moses.
The liturgical color for this season is celebratory White or Gold. When the season ends on Pentecost Sunday, White is replaced with Red. This color reminds the congregation of fire—the symbol of the Holy Spirit. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit overpowered the barriers of culture and race. The first Sunday after Pentecost celebrates the Trinity, and the color again is White or Gold.
Season after Pentecost
This longest season of the liturgical year is a continuation of the “Time of the Church” that began on the Sunday after Epiphany. It explores the mission of the church and uses the color of Green, symbolizing growth. During this season, the Lectionary offers two options for readings from Hebrew Scripture: the first, topical option selects readings thematically related to the Epistle or Gospel texts. The second, sequential option reads through an entire book of Hebrew Scripture in sequence.
Other Holy Days and observances
Pentecostal Red is also the traditional color for Reformation Day on October 31. White or Gold is the color for All Saints Day on November 1 and is also an alternative to Green on the last Sunday after Pentecost—the feast of the Reign of Christ.
During other observances, the tradition is to use Red on commemorations of martyrs and other saints. As the color of the Holy Spirit, it is appropriate for ordinations. The colors of Christmas, White or Gold, are also customary on other feast days that celebrate the Incarnation or Resurrection of Christ (Holy Name, Baptism, Presentation, Annunciation, Visitation, Ascension and Transfiguration). Black for centuries was the traditional color for funerals, but in the past fifty years many liturgical churches have preferred to use White or Gold—the colors of Easter and therefore of Resurrection hope.
In an exceptional show of solidarity, theologians and spiritual leaders of the United Church of Christ’s seven seminaries and their colleagues are uniting as signatories on this call to action, denouncing “the profound moral evil of white supremacy” and urging all Christians to make concrete change to end the benefit of white privilege.
As theological educators related to the United Church of Christ, we are united in the declaration that we reject white supremacy as a profound moral evil. White supremacy is an offense to God who created all human beings in God’s image.
As teachers of current and future clergy, we recognize the sacred responsibility we have to create space for holy listening, engagement, and instruction while also holding firmly to the fundamental dignity and equality of every human person. We call on our alumni/ae, faculty, staff and friends to stand with us in affirming, through our teaching, preaching, and public witness, a testimony to the beauty and intrinsic value of every person. We strongly reject the sinful advocacy for and ideology of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. These do violence to God’s will for the whole human family, deny the ministry and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and threaten the common good.
The urgency of our times has us reflecting on the challenging words of Rev. Traci Blackmon, “Our nation is in a moral and political crisis.” As people of faith we humbly, and yet with conviction, offer the following statement:
As a denomination that embodies an ecumenical witness and interreligious engagement, the United Church of Christ joins the human freedom movement that has prophetically led the public witness in our nation’s history against all forms of white supremacist domination. This movement has worked on many intersecting fronts through our nation’s history – abolition, indigenous rights, women’s rights, civil rights, LGBTQI rights, and now takes shape in the vision of Black Lives Matter. In our hearing, the call of Black Lives Matter is at once a confession of our nation’s sin of racism — still entrenched in vicious disparities in all our systems of economy, healthcare, education, and criminal justice — and an affirmation of faith in what we see as the yet unrealized potential of this nation, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “to live out the true meaning of its creed.” In the contemporary call of Black Lives Matter we hear lament and hope, and these truths summon and ground us anew to be about the work of freedom, represented by our liberating God.
Currently we name and decry efforts to demonize and criminalize Black Lives Matter as a part of the historic strategies of white supremacy, and we commit to listen to and engage with Black Lives Matter leaders who are prodding our nation’s conscience to face the deadly forces of racism and white supremacy at work in our society, communities, churches, and lives. We commit to doing what we can to marshal the resources of our faith, religious institutions, and tradition to further their cause of racial justice through loving engagement.
We commit to this work in solidarity with and on behalf of people of color, Jewish people, Muslim people, immigrant people, LGBTQI people and all who are made vulnerable by the rhetoric and actions within the current political climate. As people who follow Jesus, we join our bodies, voices, and spirits with those who demand justice for the oppressed and transformation for our society. As people who follow Jesus, we do this — as many have before — knowing the cost and trusting in God.
The United Church of Christ has been a Just Peace Church for more than 30 years. We recognize that the practice of confession, repentance and change, one of its peace and justice practices, is especially relevant to this urgent call for the whole nation to confront and reject white supremacy.
As representatives of the institutions of theological education, we must acknowledge that we have corporately benefited from the economic, social, political and yes, religious advantages conferred by America’s “Anglo-Saxon” myth of white superiority, as Dean Kelly Brown Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School at Union has pointed out.  We recognize that this is unearned privilege, bought through the exploitation of others, and work to do the necessary work of change to divest of these privileges in our institutional life and teaching.
We call on all institutions that have also benefited from white privilege, and they are the majority in this nation, but especially those who claim the name of Christian, to confess their own complicity in the national history of racism, repent of this, and make concrete change.
It is our conviction that this nation is worth saving and is imperiled by the vile actions of those who will deny others their right to be free citizens. Sound confessional examination of our nation’s history is not only prophetic, it is patriotic. The public square in which we all find our identity and express our humanity is sacred and must be protected and must remain free of spectacles of violence, especially the violence of racism, xenophobia and bigotry.
What we saw on display in Charlottesville, Va. on August 11 and 12, 2017 was a hatred unworthy of our nation and an assault on the sanctity of our common life. The challenge for theological educators who form citizens for the public and religious life is to persistently question how the idea of nation—which belongs to us all, can be used as a weapon to divide and fragment the people of God and our fellow citizens of goodwill. While our nation is by no means perfect, it is our conviction that it can be a great power for good in the world. That also means that it can be a powerful force for inflicting harm and suffering. We choose to fight for the former.
As theological educators we know well the history of religion being brought to the service of evil. We are also well acquainted with the calls to leave the public life to the forces of politics and culture. It is this knowledge and these memories which, as with our ancestors, bring us into the public square to bear witness to the power of religion to make this a better nation in which all God’s children might flourish. As did the abolitionists, the Civil Rights Movement, and the LGBTQ Movement or indeed any movement on behalf of those fragmented and displaced in the nation, before us we bring our religion to the public square not as power of coercion and death, but rather as a power of hope. Knowing the power of education to create new imaginations in which good is more powerful than evil and in which our society is broader and not smaller, we dedicate ourselves to the work of saving this nation in these dark hours. This is not a work we do alone but with all people of goodwill who believe this nation can have a place for us all.