Have you ever wondered why the colours used to decorate our church (pulpit hanging, communion table runner, banners) change from time to time? The answer to this question requires a bit of background knowledge about the church’s calendar.
The Church Calendar
Over the centuries the church developed its own calendar, different from the civil calendar. (Having a different calendar is a way of reminding us that what is important to us as followers of Jesus isn’t necessarily the same as what our society says is important.)
Walk Through the Life of Christ in a Year
The underlying structure of the church’s calendar is an annual walking through the life of Jesus, beginning with Advent, a four week period of preparation leading to Christmas. The word “Advent” means “coming” and is a reminder of Christ’s first coming and the need to be prepared for his second coming/advent.
During the twelve days of Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. On Epiphany, January 6, we remember the coming of the wise men.
After a period of “ordinary time” we enter Lent, a period of forty days solemn preparation leading to Holy Week. During that week we journey in our thoughts and imaginations with Jesus during the last days leading to his crucifixion, which we observe on Good Friday.
Easter Sunday marks the beginning of the “Great Fifty Days” – the period when we joyously sing hymns celebrating the resurrection. These fifty days include Ascension Day (when we remember Jesus returning/ascending to heaven) and end with Pentecost, which commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit, in power, upon the first Christians, not long after Jesus ascended. Then comes Trinity Sunday, when we focus on God’s self revelation as one God but three persons.
Then comes a long period of “ordinary time” before we enter the autumn and recall the Protestant Reformation (October 31) and remember with thanksgiving all those believers (remember in the Bible EVERY believer is called a saint) who went before us, and their example to us (All Saints’ Day, November 1). The church calendar ends on a high note on Christ the King Sunday, before, once again we begin the annual walk through the life of Jesus during Advent.
Colours are a Visual Illustration
Each of the seasons of the church’s calendar has a particular colour associated with it – a sort of “visual” illustration. Usually there are four colours used:
- Green is used more than any other colour. It is used during what is called “ordinary time.” In this case “ordinary” refers to ordinal numbers (first, second, third, fourth) as opposed to cardinal numbers (one, two three, four) and the Sundays of ordinary time are always given an ordinary number, like “First Second after Pentecost.” But we may also think of ordinary time as those periods when there are no major events in the church’s calendar. That’s a reminder that while we may have “high” points in our walk with God, most of the time, we must live out our faith in ordinary day to day life.
- Purple is used during Lent and Advent. This is a solemn colour, a reminder that Lent and Advent are times of serious reflection and preparation. Purple is also the colour associated with Kings. Even today the robes of Kings are often purple in colour. And at both Lent and Advent we are especially thinking about Jesus, the King of Kings.
- White is used for times of great celebration, particularly the Twelve Days of Christmas, as well as Easter Sunday and the “Great Fifty Days” of Easter. It is also the colour used for Trinity Sunday.
- Red is used on Pentecost Sunday (a reminder of the tongues like flame which appeared over the heads of the disciples in the upper room), and on Sundays when we may be focusing on people who gave up or risked their lives for the faith.
So now you know!!