Black, Blue, and Purple: Researching Advent Colors

Yesterday, I shared an old post on the debate over liturgical colors in Advent. After writing that post five years ago, I spent a few days digging through various liturgical guides to research the topic. (As is fitting of someone in their late twenties: write an article, then research it.) So today, I’m reposting the fruits of that week-long obsession compiled into a single post:


Black, Violet, and Blue

Originally posted December 6, 2016

In digging around some of my liturgical textbooks, I came across Martin Dudley’s entry on liturgical colors in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (which, in my humble opinion, should be a required text for anyone involved in liturgical planning). He remarks on the connection between blue, violet, and black vestments:

Black, violet, and blue seem to be interchangeable in the medieval palette, and black was used in Jerusalem in Advent and on Christmas Eve instead of violet and was also assigned to feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is perhaps part of the development of blue as Mary’s colour, as found in Cologne.

Those who argue for certain Marian overtones — or at least a connection between the colors of Advent and Marian feasts — do have some room to argue from Tradition, my own misgivings notwithstanding.

Later in the entry, Dudley points to differences between purple: purpureus indicates the “red-purple” and violaceus a “blue-purple.” Such distinction does survive today in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, if memory serves.

Which brings me to a point of minutiae: I tend to call the liturgical color “purple,” but properly it is called “violet.” From Pfatteicher’s Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship:

The drafters of the Commons Service Book  and the Service Book and Hymnal knew the tradition out of which they came and so specified “violet” as the proper color for Advent and Lent, translating  violaceus of the Roman rubrics. The name, in Latin and in English, was intended to describe a blue-purple. The editors of the Lutheran Book of Worship, bowing to prevailing popular practiced, used “purple” to describe the color rather than “violet,” but the book encourages the use of blue, listing it first.


Prepare the Way: Penitence in Advent

Originally posted December 7, 2016

Perhaps the largest point of contention for the Great Blue/Purple Debate is the function of Advent. Is it a time of preparation or of hope?

I addressed this briefly in my post on Monday, but allow me to build on what I said.

If we consider the texts assigned in the RCL and the preceding lectionaries, we see a decided emphasis on penitence as part of preparation. Yes, Isaiah has a good deal to say about hope and renewal, but John the Baptist is there, too, calling us to repentance.

Furthermore, the origins of Advent — shrouded in the fog of historical distance though they are — hint at penitential origins. From Bishop J. Neil Alexander’s entry on Advent in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship:

Fifth- and sixth-century evidence shows a variety of penitential observances in Gaul and Spain lasting as many as six weeks. Some have sought the origin of Advent in the practice of Epiphany baptism by noting parallels to the shape of Lent. Others have called attention to sixth-century synodical documents and episcopal decrees that enjoin the faithful to penitence from the feast of Martin of Tours to the feast of Epiphany. Still others have taken note of the fast of the tenth month of pagan Rome and suggest that Advent may have begun as a response of the church in the continuing memory of the pagan winter fast.

Missing from Bp. Alexander’s account is the parallel of the long season of fasting that leads to the Orthodox celebration of the Nativity. The good bishop goes on to remind us that there is no consensus concerning the origins of Advent. Still, their does appear to be unity among the theories — and our Orthodox kindred’s analogous fast — of a penitential Advent.

Paul Strodach sums up the role of Advent — and Lent — beautifully in his brief explanation of the color:

Violet, the color of royal mourning, is scheduled for periods of preparation and penitence.

To reiterate my conclusion from Monday, I am less concerned about the color than the function behind it. Wear blue if you want. But please — PLEASE — do not neglect the dual function of both penitence and hope as we prepare for the Advent of our Lord.


Color and Adiaphora

Originally posted December 8, 2016

I have repeatedly chalked liturgical colors up to a matter of adiaphora. At the end of the day, I’m not terribly concerned.

Have I spent the better part of a week researching and writing about liturgical colors? Yes. Because I’m a nerd.

Am I going to excommunicate anyone over it? No.

Still, I don’t believe adiaphora is synonymous with “unimportant.” Those charged with caring for sacred things should always think carefully about everything. The seemingly trivial decisions we make have resounding implications.

In the words of Paul Strodach, from his liturgical commentary A Manual on Worship:

Use of Liturgical Colors, and hangings and vestments in such colors, are not arbitrary or recent invention or innovation. They are the development of church use and expression through many centuries. There is a definite purpose in their employment: it is to teach through the eye. They are symbolic, and by this means the worshiper receives constantly and silently an external comment or lesson which calls to mind the period of the Church Year through which he is passing, in which he is worshiping, and the great facts of redemption memorialized. Such a contribution is very helpful: it adds its individual not to the great harmony of the worship in which he is engaging.


Pfatteicher’s Dissent

Originally posted December 9, 2016

Throughout my series, I’ve suggested that expressing continuity between Advent and Lent is desirable. Philip Pfatteicher, Lutheran liturgist extraordinaire and among my academic heroes, disagrees.  Here’s his thinking from the Manual on the Liturgy for the Lutheran Book of Worship:

The traditional color of Advent purple, the royal color of the coming King. The preferred color in the Lutheran Book of Worship, however, is blue, which has a precedent in the Swedish Church and in the Mozarabic rite. Blue suggests hope, a primary theme of Advent. In any case, the Advent paraments should not be the same as those used for Lent, for the character of the two seasons is quite different, and the only symbol common to both seasons is the Lamb of God.

No word on if his reasoning pertains exclusively to symbols embroider on the vestments and paraments (such as a Star of Bethlehem for Advent and the Spear of Longinus for Lent) or if his thinking extends to even simple vestments free of added emblems.

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