Shades of Violet in Advent

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Shades of Violet in Advent

ROME, 4 DEC. 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: The 2011 Paulist Press Ordo states: "The official color for the season of Advent is violet. In order to distinguish between this season and the specifically penitential season of Lent, the bluer hues of violet may be used during Advent. Light blue vestments, however, are not authorized for use in the United States." The 2012 Paulist Press Ordo it states: "The official color for the season of Advent is violet or Roman purple. In order to distinguish between this season and the specifically penitential season of Lent, the brighter and redder hues of violet, not indigo hues, may be used during Advent. Blue vestments are not authorized for use in the United States." Are these color suggestions ('may be used') the opinion of the editor (different from one year to the next) or is there some official documentation as to which is preferred? At our parish, we have always used the bluer hues of violet (royal purple) for Advent (darker days of expectation, Midnight Mass) and the redder hues of violet (Roman purple) for Lent (sacrificial aspect, Palm Sunday, Good Friday). — F.L., Rochester, New York

A: The different recommendations might be a cut-and-paste error from the previous year, a change in editorial opinion, or a subliminal advert to increase the sale of liturgical vestments.

With respect to the purpose of using different liturgical colors, the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, No. 121, says: "The purpose of using different colors is to express the specific character of the various mysteries. The use of the diverse colors is both pedagogical and symbolic of the various liturgical feasts and seasons."

With respect to the above-mentioned color, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 346.d, says the following:

"d. Violet or purple is used in Advent and of Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead (cf. below)."

To this may be added the later clarifications from Redemptionis Sacramentum:

"[127.] A special faculty is given in the liturgical books for using sacred vestments that are festive or more noble on more solemn occasions, even if they are not of the color of the day. However, this faculty, which is specifically intended in reference to vestments made many years ago, with a view to preserving the Church's patrimony, is improperly extended to innovations by which forms and colors are adopted according to the inclination of private individuals, with disregard for traditional practice, while the real sense of this norm is lost to the detriment of the tradition. On the occasion of a feast day, sacred vestments of a gold or silver color can be substituted as appropriate for others of various colors, but not for purple or black."

The norms indicate the use of either violet or purple. Violet (violaceus) is a hue similar to that of the synonymous flower and is defined by the Collins dictionary as "any of a group of colors that vary in saturation but have the same purplish-blue hue. They lie at one end of the visible spectrum, next to blue" — actually, next to indigo — "approximate wavelength range 445-390 nanometers."
Purple is a similar color and comprises "any of various colors with a hue lying between red and blue and often highly saturated; a non-spectral color."

The liturgical norms make no preference for any particular shade of either color, and any and all of them may be used for liturgical vestments.

There is nothing in official norms requiring a distinction between the shades used in Advent and Lent — nor for funerals.

At the same time, there is nothing which would forbid or oppose such a distinction except perhaps asking why a parish should needlessly acquire two sets of purple vestments.

Likewise, one could legitimately ask whether there is any cultural basis to determine why one shade of purple or violet is somehow more penitential than another. It is probably possible to find good arguments both in pro and in contra of deep purple for Advent and lighter shades for Lent, or vice versa. In the end it probably boils down to personal taste.

The discussion could be prolonged: Should we use one tone of red vestments for the Holy Spirit and another for martyrs?

In conclusion, if a parish wishes to use different tones of violet for Advent and Lent, it is free to do so. However, there is nothing in liturgical law or custom to make this choice obligatory, nor even to suggest it as a recommendable practice.

If, over time, this practice spreads and becomes common, then it might acquire the force of custom and be enshrined in law. For the moment, freedom reigns.

Finally, perhaps our reader made a slight slip when he said: "At our parish, we have always used the bluer hues of violet (royal purple) for Advent (darker days of expectation, Midnight Mass) and the redder hues of violet (Roman purple) for Lent (sacrificial aspect, Palm Sunday, Good Friday)."

The proper color of Midnight Mass is white; that of Palm Sunday and Good Friday is red.

* * *

Follow-up: Shades of Violet in Advent [12-18-2012]

Gauging from the response, it appears that our Dec. 4 comments on different shades of violet has struck a nerve for some readers. One Illinois priest wrote, "I was happy to see that you indicated that a parish is not required to buy different shades of violet/purple vestments in relation to the so-called appropriate hues for Advent and Lent."

Another priest, from Canada, commented, "I have come to realize that many who would distinguish Advent and Lenten violets do so because they do not properly recognize the penitential character of Advent. This is why, so they say, it should not be the same shade of violet. As you have rightly stated, the Church makes no such distinction between the two seasons. However, I believe it would be acceptable to hold that Lent has a stronger penitential flavor than Advent, or at least it's more obviously so."

Our correspondent is correct in saying that the Church makes no distinction between Lent and Advent with respect to shades of violet, but that it does distinguish between the two seasons in many other ways such as the possibility of celebrating saints and votive celebrations, the use of flowers and of the organ, and the singing of the Alleluia.

Therefore, while we could say that Advent has a certain penitential character it is far less marked than that of Lent. We could say that the accent of Advent is more centered on spiritual purification and preparation to receive the Lord. Lent, on the other hand, is geared more toward repentance for sins and freeing ourselves from the bonds of earthly attractions. I desire a blessed and holy Christmas to all our readers.

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