Liturgical colors are not games of ideological rainbows, but visible signs of the sacred mysteries we celebrate


The sloppiness, like vanity, they are both diseases that destroy the liturgical sign, which by its nature - to be truly "beautiful" - needs truth and simplicity. It is certainly not by eliminating the signs that we arrive at a more "beautiful" and engaging liturgy or an unspecified "liturgy of the origins", but explaining their profound meaning.

— Liturgical ministry —

Simone Pifizzi


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When the presbyters are consecrated priests the Bishop addresses a warning that should mark our entire existence: "Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, conform your life to the mystery of the cross of Christ the Lord " [See. Liturgy of the sacred ordination of priests, n. 150].

The priesthood is linked to a dimension of eternity, because we will be priests forever. The indelible character of the Holy Order confers a dignity that makes us superior even to the Angels of God, who stand aside before the priests. Our brother illustrates it in a masterful way Marcello Stanzione, considered one of the leading European experts of Angels and whose article I refer you to [see WHO].

The sacred liturgy it is made up of signs and symbols which are certainly not ends in themselves, because they constitute those "external accidents" or "outward signs" through which substance is concreted and takes shape. An example, indeed I would say the most striking example: the Most Holy Eucharist, mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ and his real presence among us, it is realized through the matter and the external sign of the bread and the wine which truly and substantially become the living and true Christ.

In the sacred liturgy every sign and gesture, even silences have their theological and mystagogical meaning. Of "liturgical silences" there are three foreseen by the rite of the Holy Mass: during the penitential act, after the celebrant said: «Before worthily celebrating these holy mysteries let us acknowledge our sins». Then after the proclamation of the Holy Gospel, if there is no homily, or after the homily. In the end, after Holy Communion. Moments of silence that it would be good to respect and not omit, thing that incidentally the Bishops would do well to remind those of their priests that in 15 few minutes celebrate the weekday Holy Mass, perhaps forgetting that he had recited the phrase from the beginning «…before celebrating worthily…». Word, that of "dignity", which should have a great weight, especially in the celebration of the "sacred mysteries".

Among these signs there are also liturgical garments which - like every sign - sometimes risk obscuring rather than revealing the reality to which they refer. In fact, we cannot hide the risk that in our cultural context some liturgical vestments, for their affectation and sophistication, may they tarnish the glory of God and be regarded simply as an exhibition of human vanity. But that unspeakable sloppiness is also deplorable - today considered poverty and simplicity, but which should instead be called by its name: sloppiness! - which not only distorts the liturgical sign (think of the various chasubles and rainbow stoles) but even, sometimes, he removes it altogether with an arbitrariness that no minister of God is permitted.

The sloppiness, like vanity, they are both diseases that destroy the liturgical sign, which by its nature - to be truly "beautiful" - needs truth and simplicity. It is certainly not by eliminating the signs that we arrive at a more "beautiful" and engaging liturgy or an unspecified "liturgy of the origins", but explaining their profound meaning.

The liturgical dress, compared to other signs, is of very relative importance. Proof of this is that for at least the first four centuries of the life of the Church, the sources do not report that ordained ministers wore special clothes during the celebrations, convinced that it was essentially important to be "put on Christ" [cf.. Gal 3, 26]. The Pope Celestine I, in the fifth century, he complained to some bishops in southern Gaul that some priests had begun to use showy clothes for the liturgy, and so he concluded:

“We must distinguish ourselves from others by doctrine, not for the dress; for conduct, not for the dress; for purity of mind, not for outward adornment" (cf.. Celestine I, Letter, PL 50, 431).

It would also be worth explaining how and why, during the first centuries, ancient symbols and clothes paganites Roman times merged into the early Christian liturgy starting from the beginning of the 4th century. These are external signs to which a profound Christian value was given. The structure of certain rites is even older, for example, those of the offertory of the Holy Mass have their roots in the ancient offertory liturgies performed by priests in the Temple of Jerusalem. However, these are complex topics related to the history of the liturgy that we will deal specifically with in another article.

Even in awareness well expressed by the ancient popular saying "the dress does not make the monk", that the liturgical dress, like all outward signs, has a secondary importance in Christian worship, this certainly cannot lead us to ignore that it belongs to that complex of conventional signs which humanity has used since the beginning to express the thought, lifestyle, the ideas and role of a person. The dress, whether you like it or not, he always sends out a message and expresses something about the role, of a person's identity and mission. And it is precisely starting from this last concept that we can identify one of the main meanings of liturgical vestments understood as a sign of a mandate and of a mission that is certainly not hoarded, but received from the Lord. And if it remains profoundly true for every baptized person that the Lord Jesus invites us to worship in spirit and in truth [cf.. GV 4, 24], so is the fact that we - who live in the regime of signs and see invisible realities "as in a mirror" [cf.. I Cor 13,12] ― we need these signs to be able to express a cult that is not theoretical, disenchanted, but that knows how to gather everything that is profoundly human to express to the fullest what it intends to communicate.

The liturgical dress, like all human expressions not exempt from that corruption that has its roots in the human heart, he will always have to "come to terms" between the "high" meaning he wants to express and those deviations represented by sloppiness, from vanity and power. The vestments of ordained ministers, like all the ritual dresses of instituted ministries and of the laity (and in this I would also put some clothes for weddings and first communions) they have the symbolic task of expressing an inner reality and an ecclesial service in a simple and clear way, and not for this reason in contrast with beauty and decorum, because beauty and dignity hardly lead to truth. All this always avoiding that they become elements that hinder the correct understanding of the message of which the liturgy carries, or that even distort the very essence of the sacred liturgy.

Overall signs and symbols on which the liturgy lives and feeds, the liturgical garments we have said have a secondary value. A fortiori this speech is valid for the colors that have entered into liturgical use both for clothes and for other decorations. However they are present in the liturgy and often arouse curiosities and questions in the faithful that need to be given a serious and precise answer, recalling that in Christian worship - especially since the reform of the Second Vatican Council - nothing must be simply decorative or superfluous or worse still relegated to pure external form, on the contrary: everything must have a theological and mystagogical meaning.

Leaving aside the complex historical details, at least in our context, I want to remind you that in the liturgy the colors, as symbols, they came in rather late. For seven centuries the colors have not had a particular importance in Christian worship. Surely - and both written and iconographic sources confirm this - there was a predominant use of white, always considered in the Mediterranean culture the color of celebrations and great occasions. Speaking of the white baptismal robe, the Holy Doctor of the Church Ambrose of Milan reminded the newly baptized:

"You then received white garments to show that you have cast off the sheath of sin and have put on the pure garments of innocence as the prophet said: cleanse me with hyssop and I will be cleansed: wash me and I will be whiter than snow" [Sant'Ambrogio, On mysteries, VII, 34].

Over the centuries what concerns the shape and the preciousness of the liturgical vestments is codified slowly, especially in the Byzantine liturgy. But to find an accentuation of sensitivity to the language of colors we have to wait for the Middle Ages, in a context where, what is no longer understood by the people through the Latin language and the meaning of the rites, it is rendered through visual language. It is not by chance, the middle Ages, it represented that happy time when you sign, symbols, gestures or silences spoke eloquently, but above all they were fully loaded with profound theological and spiritual meanings. With Pope Innocent III [†1216] we have ― with regard to the colors ― the first common directives that gradually impose themselves everywhere, finally being codified with the Missal of St. Pius V in the 1570, where the white robes are established, verdi, redheads, purple and black depending on the celebrations: the use of the color pink also appears on the 3rd Sunday of Advent and on the 4th Sunday of Lent, also said Happy Sunday, when the strict fast was broken.

The reform implemented by the Second Vatican Council he did not abolish the legislation regarding liturgical colors, however, considering it in the broader context of those signs that must be «clear, suitable for the understanding capacity of the faithful and do not need many explanations" [cf.. Holy Council, 34]. On the basis of this principle, the various national episcopal conferences are given the freedom to freely determine and use the liturgical colors according to the culture of the individual peoples [cf.. General Order of the Roman Missal, 346].

The current rules provide for the Roman rite and our western area the use of these colors:

BIANCO: it is the color of light, of purity and joy. It is used on all solemnities and feasts of the Lord (except those of the Passion), for the feasts of the Virgin Mary, of the Angels, of non-martyr saints. It is also used to administer the Sacraments of Baptism and Marriage.

ROSSO: color of fire and blood, symbol of Love / Charity, of the gift, of the sacrifice, of martyrdom. It is used in Holy Week for Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the day of Pentecost, for the feasts of the Apostles, of the holy martyrs, for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, as well as in votive Masses to the Precious Blood of Jesus. It can also be used for the Mass of the Sacrament of Confirmation.

VERDE: in our culture it is a restful color that expresses normality, tenacious and permanent journey of hope. It is used in the weekday and Sunday celebrations of Ordinary Time.

VIOLA: Initially used as a variant of black, over time it has become a color in its own right. Solemn and serious colour, it expresses fatigue and hope at the same time. It is used during Advent and Lent and expresses penance and preparation for the coming of Christ. It is also used in celebrations of the dead instead of the color black, the use of which remains optional, because in our culture it best expresses the Christian hope which is also present in the face of the mystery of death.

Rosacea: Conceived as a variation of purple, marks two breaks that the Church takes during times of penance. It is used twice a year, the third Sunday of Advent, this Dominica Gaudete and the fourth Sunday of Lent said Dominica to rejoice.

Besides these, in the various liturgical “families” other colors exist and are used in sacred celebrations:

ORO: Symbolizing divine light gold or yellow can be used to substitute for any color except purple.

NERO: Generally considered in relation to the celebrations of the dead, in the Middle Ages it was used to indicate penitential times. Since the Council of Trent it was also used for Good Friday.

SKY BLUE: it is associated with the Marian dogma and can therefore only be used during celebrations related to the Blessed Virgin Mary, such as the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception. The only color that represents a true liturgical privilege, its use was authorized by the Council of Trent only in Portugal, in Spain, in the former territories of these two countries, in the former kingdom of Bavaria, in certain churches in Naples and finally in the Franciscan Order historically and theologically considered worthy of having defended the Marian dogma. This privilege is still valid today.

The liturgical colors, beyond their use and meaning, they serve to communicate the message that, according to the different celebrations, it can be festive, of hope, conversion, of solidarity in pain… All of this is certainly not enough as an end in itself, if it is not accompanied by the fundamental purpose of every Christian ― especially if an ordained minister ― and of every community of disciples of the Lord, or: live the gospel!

Not to make vestments, colors or other symbols and liturgical signs nothing more than expressions of folklore, strangeness or simple vanity, they need to become an "epiphany" of the mystery of salvation which finds its unique and profound root in the vital and life-giving encounter with Jesus, Word incarnate, Eternal Priest of the New Covenant. Why everything, in the sacred liturgy, manifests and expresses the mystery of the incarnate Word of God, died, resurrected and ascended to heaven. For this reason the liturgical assembly acclaims the living body and blood of Christ: "We announce your death, Lord, we proclaim your resurrection, waiting for your coming". This is the heart of the sacred liturgy.


Florence, 26 January 2023





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