A Blue Advent?

The beauty of Advent is that it is, at once, a time of great joy and anticipation and a time of personal reflection and penance. Both involve preparation for the birth of Christ, and the latter complements the former.

This message of hope has been a central theme of John Paul II’s pontificate. Addressing his general audience in 2003, the Holy Father stated that:

Advent maintains alive our expectation of Christ, Who will come to visit us with His salvation, realizing fully His Kingdom of justice and peace. The annual recalling of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem renews in the hearts of believers the certainty that God is faithful to His promises. Advent is, therefore, a powerful proclamation of hope, which touches profoundly our personal and communal experience.

According to Catholic tradition, violet is the primary color of Advent, just as it is for Lent. The rubrics in the Missale Romanum list violet as one of five liturgical colors, the others being white, red, green, and black; rose is permitted to replace violet on the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete) and the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare).

Additionally, as is customary in other aspects of the liturgy, a given conference of bishops may propose alternatives to conform to the “needs and culture of people.” These colors are most visibly expressed in the vestments worn by the priest during the liturgy. During Advent, the liturgical colors also find expression in the candles lit on the Advent wreath.

At least during my lifetime, blue is a color that has appeared in many parishes throughout the United States, replacing the traditional purple and pink colors both on the Advent wreath and even for priestly vestments. I recall most vividly when the colors of the Advent wreath candles at my childhood parish suddenly changed from the traditional purple and pink colors to blue, and years later, back to the traditional colors once again. I thought that the blue Advent fad, in fact, had faded, until a recent visit to a local parish confirmed that it still persists within my diocese (but not at all parishes).

This inconsistency prompted me to investigate further. What became clear with minimal research is that nowhere is blue prescribed as an acceptable color for Advent in the United States (at least in the Roman Rite). Blue is prescribed in some Latin American countries, as well as Spain, for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and is utilized for similar Marian feasts in some Eastern Rite churches. But blue has neither been prescribed for the Roman Rite nor requested as an adaptation by the body of American bishops.

Nonetheless, this has not stopped some priests from forging what is apparently their own adaptation of traditional seasonal colors. One might well ask why, and the related question of whether color even matters in the first place. Why waste efforts on such seemingly trivial and irrelevant issues? Are there not more pertinent issues upon which to focus?

First, color indeed matters. As provided in Redemptionis Sacramentum, “the purpose of a variety of color of the sacred vestments is to give effective expression even outwardly to the specific character of the mysteries of faith being celebrated and to a sense of Christian life's passage through the course of the liturgical year.” Likewise, “sacred vestments should also contribute to the beauty of the sacred action itself.” If color were irrelevant in the eyes of the Church, then no such changes or distinctions would be made. Nor would rubrics be adopted pertaining to it.

Second, any change to Catholic tradition — whatever form it may take — is neither trivial nor irrelevant. Even the most seemingly minor alteration reveals a given intent, i.e. if your priest dons the blue and white vestment during Advent, he is fully aware of the role of color in the liturgical calendar and he contemplated this change. And if he did not, then at one point in the history of your parish, one of his colleagues did and your present pastor, for whatever reason, has merely followed it. Either way, through deliberate intent or omission, the priest has acceded to what amounts to an unsanctioned alteration. The color of Advent candles or liturgical vestments must be more than a trivial issue, otherwise, why the need to alter it in the first place?

What is clear is that the traditional purple/pink Advent colors, fully approved and adopted by the Church, have long symbolized the dual purpose of Advent. Purple symbolizes solemnity, connoting both penance and royal dignity; likewise, rose, used during the Third Week, marks a pause, of sorts, or break from the penitential focus of the Advent (and Lenten) season. This is important because one rationale for using blue for all four weeks of Advent is that it is more regal and less somber than the traditional colors, “in step” with a more modern, and unilateral understanding of Advent as a time of anticipation and joy.

However, this understanding, while it may symbolize a singular purpose of Advent, tends to defeat the dual meaning of the season: there is also a need for penance and somber reflection, a cleansing of heart in preparation for the birth of Christ. According to the Holy Father, the sacrament of reconciliation reveals to the penitent “the consciousness of sin…and at the same time the joy of forgiveness.” This renewal is central to the proclamation of hope that is the Advent season. The Advent wreath, as expressed through its traditional colors, embodies this very proclamation.

Perhaps some priests and laymen may not like such an emphasis on somber reflection and penance, but considered in this way, we see that the (small t) tradition of the liturgical colors is meant to be expressive of (large T) Tradition, Sacred Tradition. Before altering the colors of the Advent wreath candles and vestments we should question whether the new colors will more fully and richly convey the dual meaning of the Advent season. This question aside, what is clear is that many parishioners in the United States will have a blue Advent once again this year.

© Copyright 2004 Catholic Exchange

Scott Noto is a Catholic lawyer and writer. He has previously written for Cruxnews.com.

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