Human ritual, and liturgical ritual in particular, depends on our use of the senses to express realities of our faith which might otherwise be difficult to express. So the liturgy makes use of the power that is inherently present in simple things, like the act of gathering together, gesture and posture, singing, speaking, touching, washing, meal-sharing, the scent of incense and flowers, and colors. The various liturgical seasons and feasts are traditionally marked by certain liturgical colors. Thus the priest or deacon will wear vestments with the appropriate liturgical color. The same color may also be found on the altar or in other decorations.
White is the color used for the Christmas and Easter seasons. Red is used on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday, on Pentecost Sunday, on feasts of the apostles and evangelists, and on feasts days of martyrs. Violet or purple is used during the seasons of Advent and Lent. Rose vestments and decorations may be used on the third Sunday of Lent and the fourth Sunday of Lent, and gold or silver vestments may be used on more solemn days, even if not the proper color of the day.
Black, too, is one of the traditional liturgical colors, although rarely seen any more. Black, or violet or white vestments are worn for the celebration of funerals. There are two reasons why black is virtually no longer used for funerals. First of all, in our modern culture we no longer insist that black must be used to express our mourning. Secondly, our theological understanding of death is much more hope-filled than even in the early 20th century. The revised liturgy for funerals puts much less emphasis on sin and sorrow, and prefers to focus our prayerful attention on the redeeming Christ and the hope of resurrection that he offers to us.
This change from the preference of black for funerals is an example of how the liturgy expresses and is even shaped by our faith. For this reason the liturgical book used for funerals directs that although white, violet or black may be used for funerals,”the liturgical color chosen for funerals should express Christian hope...” It is hard to imagine how black or even purple could best express hope. I remember that some years ago liturgical planners around the world were asking what colors should appropriately be used to mark the death of a pope. A common opinion was that black bunting might be draped on our churches. This nineteenth century custom would seem to speak well of sadness, sin, darkness and defeat, but little about the light, the hope, the victory over death proclaimed in the gospel.
The Church’s liturgical books explain that the purpose of liturgical colors is twofold. First, colors give outward expression to the specific character of the mystery of faith being celebrated (the specific character of a funeral celebration is victorious light and life, not darkness and gloom). Secondly, colors changing from season to season and from feast to feast give expression to a sense of Christian life’s passage through the course of the liturgical year. That yearly passage is itself a symbol, an expression of the journey of faith, walked over the course of a lifetime by each one of us.