Now in Ordinary Time we’re back to wearing green vestments and folks quite rightly wonder what the meaning of the four colors of vestments signify. (six if you count the rose and black vestments ) So I explain to the altar boys that red is for the blood of the martyrs and the fire of the Holy Spirit. White and gold for the glory of God and the celebration of Easter and Christmastide.Purple is more somber to mark the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. But why green? Is it for summertime when everything is green and growing? Maybe, but the explanation seems strained at best.
The British scholar Margaret Baker has unlocked a detail in her studies of the worship in the Jewish temple that helps elucidate the tradition of color in Catholic vestments. In fact, the development of the traditions of the different colors is very complicated and it was only comparatively recently that the four colors were standardized and universally accepted. In various countries different traditions developed independently. So, for example, in medieval England during Lent they used “Lenten array”–a simple burlap kind of fabric embroidered with instruments of Our Lord’s passion. You can see an example here. This is still a custom in many Anglican churches. Elsewhere blue vestments were worn for Advent.
So what is Margaret Barker’s insight? She observed that the curtain in the temple that separated the Holy place from the Holy of Holies was woven in four colors: white, red, purple and blue. The four colors represented the four elements of air, earth, fire and water from which the ancients believed the whole material realm was forged. Red stood for fire. White for earth because the white fabric was linen which was refined from flax which grew in the earth. Purple stood for water because the dye for the purple was taken from the gland of a mollusk which was found in the seabed. Learn more here. Blue was for air–the color of the sky.