by J. Barrington Bates
Whenever I engage in this conversation, it goes something like this: Advent and Lent are very different seasons. Lent is penitential; Advent is not. Therefore, the liturgical colors should be different.
Then, my conversational partner inevitably goes on to assert we should use violet for Lent, because it is penitential, and blue for Advent, following the custom of medieval Salisbury. (One recent cyber conversation even included this: “cf. any source on the Sarum rite. [Blue] has the advantage of being Anglican whereas purple was brought into use by people copying Rome.”)
Now, here’s my opinion on those assertions:
|Advent and Lent are very different seasons||Agreed|
|Lent is penitential||Perhaps|
|Advent is not penitential||Questionable|
|The liturgical colors should be different||Not a bad idea|
The first and most difficult concern is one of stewardship. In an era when many churches are strapped financially and when parishes are—for the most part—only peripherally involved in missional activities such as serving the poor, does it make sense to purchase another expensive set of vestments to differentiate seasons that are always separated by several months of time? The answer is obvious: no.
Assuming, however, that one wants to proceed with such an endeavor, the questions then becomes: What is a good way to differentiate Advent and Lent by color?
To answer this question, let’s look at some actual evidence (and not oft-repeated cocktail-party patter or faint remembrances of some long-deceased seminary professor). Some historians suggest that white was the only liturgical color in use up to at least the fourth century. (Early-church geeks: take notice!) Evidence of any significant correlation between seasons, feasts, and fasts of the church’s year and the colors employed can be found beginning only in the twelfth century—and this was hardly universal, even by the time of the Reformation. One nineteenth-century author recounts that in his day,
it is now customary to mark the different seasons of the Ecclesiastical year … by using various coloured altar coverings and other hangings. In some cases this is extended also to the stole.
—indicating that the use of colors was, at least in some Anglican churches, still considered innovative only about 135 years ago!
Color sequences that include mixtures (blue and white, or half blue and half yellow) and references to seemingly exotic colors (including “tawney,” orange, brown, “popinjay-colour,” “crane-colour,” and “horseflesh-colour”) abound in medieval manuscripts. And colors also abounded: one ninth-century Irish treatise refers to no fewer than eight different colors for the chasuble: yellow, blue, white, green, brown, red, black, and purple.
As for Salisbury, there are two significant periods for which a liturgical rule book—or consuetudinary—still exists, one from the twelfth century and one from the fourteenth. Medieval inventories of Salisbury cathedral mention vestments of numerous colors, including red, white, yellow, black, violet, purple, blue, green, red-and-white, blue-and-black, purple-and-black, and red-and-green. It appears that the most precious vestments were worn on the most solemn occasions, irrespective of color, at Salisbury, and that the specific color sequence appears to be local, informal, and loosely defined, at best.
Further, we can deduce from recent evidence in the Church of England that the terms violet and purple are interchangeable—otherwise the church would have mandated that all churches replace the violet authorized in 1980 with the purple of 2000! (Personally, I prefer the term violet to purple, to avoid confusion with “episcopal purple,” the fuchsia color that the vestment makers now often call “red-purple.”) But can this notion of interchangeability also extend to medieval blue and purple? At least two scholars think so, and others suggest some latitude in color sequences—since whether you got blue or violet depended on factors such as temperature, alkalinity, and the species of snail used in dyeing.
Some have suggested that violet symbolizes repentance, and should therefore be generally used on occasions of “supplication or humiliation.” In this sense, violet seems hardly appropriate for a Lenten season of baptismal preparation. Violet also enjoys some allusions to royalty, as it continues an expensive and difficult process to dye cloth this color. In this regard, does not violet, therefore, naturally attach itself to the eschatological—proclaiming the return of Christ in glorious majesty, a primary theme of Advent?
The use of Sarum was certainly was not the single standard of thirteenth-century England—as there appeared to be no standard at all. In Westminster Abbey at this time the color for Advent was “definitely ordered to be white,” while Wells Cathedral used blue, Exeter violet, and Pleshy College red. What makes thirteenth-century Salisbury so special? And can we accurately ascribe the color blue in Advent to the use of Sarum? Obviously, no. Taking medieval England as a whole, there is more evidence for veiling and the use of a Lenten array than for use of blue, violet, or any other color particular to any season. The use of plain or even “rough” white linen, often embroidered with crosses or other symbols, may have been more nearly universal than the use of any color scheme for Lent.
In sum, we are living in a time when the strict sequences of colors laid out in such a text as Ritual Notes appears to be breaking down. Some of the newer ideas—include the use of blue for Advent—appear to derive from erroneous assumptions or scholarship about the past that is more creative than comprehensive. If we really wish to differentiate the seasons of Advent and Lent by using different colors for each of them, historical precedent would clearly indicate some plain or unbleached white for Lent and violet for Advent.
This blog posting as adapted from Am I Blue? Some Historical Evidence for Liturgical Colors, which appeared in Studia Liturgica (33:1, 2003). Full citations may be found there. The author is an Anglican priest and liturgical scholar, currently serving a parish of the Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey. He welcomes comments, suggestions, corrections, and other banter.