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A History Of The Mass And Its Ceremonies In The Eastern And Western Church -Rev John O'Brien A.M.

The Church employs at the present day five different colors in her sacred vestments—viz., white, red, green, violet, and black. Up to the sixth century she rarely used any (color but white (Kozma, 73); and in the time of Pope Innocent III. (thirteenth century) there was no such color in use as violet, for that pontiff makes no mention of this color when he names the four employed in his day (De Sacr. Altaris Myster., p. 86). That violet, however, was introduced soon after this pontiff’s book appeared, is evident from Durandus, who flourished about the year 1280 (Pope Innocent III. died in 1215), for in his great work, entitled Rationale Divinorum, violet is specially mentioned.

White, being symbolic of purity, innocence, and glory, is, as a general rule, employed on the special feasts of our Lord and the Blessed Virgin, and on those of the angels, virgins, and confessors.

Red, the symbol of fortitude, is the color proper to Pentecost, in memory of the “tongues of fire”; it is also used on the feasts of the apostles and martyrs, and on those of our Lord’s Passion.

Green, symbolic of hope, is used as the color of the time from the octave of the Epiphany to Septuagesima, and from the octave of Pentecost to Advent.

Violet, the penitential color, is used on all occasions of public affliction and sorrow, in times of fasting and penance, and in all those processions which do not immediately concern the Blessed Sacrament. This color is also used on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, on account of the lamentations and weepings heard through Jerusalem when they were massacred by order of Herod. But should this feast fall on Sunday, the color of the occasion is red, as is also the color of the octave, from the fact that the lamentations taken up are supposed to have ceased by this time, and the eighth day is always significant of beatitude and glory (De Herdt, Sacr. Liturg. Praxis, i. p. 190; Bouvry, Expos. Rubr., ii. 199).

Black, from its gloomy appearance, and because it is the negation of all color, is used in Masses and Offices of the Dead, and on Good Friday in memory of the profound darkness that covered the land when our Lord was crucified.

In ancient times it was customary with many churches to wear saffron-colored vestments on this latter day, to recall to mind the bitter vindictiveness of the Jews in putting our Saviour to death, saffron being indicative of bile. Writing upon this, Bellotte thus remarks: “Croceo namque sen flavo colori bilis assimilatur, cujus sedes et imperium in præcordiis et visceribus Judæorum nedum iram sed et iræ furorem provocavit adversus Dominum et adversus Christum ejus” (Church of Our Fathers, ii. 263). For this same reason it was that the traitor Judas, in all mediæval paintings, is depicted with hair a shade of color between red and yellow. The Jews themselves were obliged, up to a recent date, to wear in many countries a yellow badge, so that all might know them from the rest of the people (ibid.)

Local Customs and Privileges.—In France red used to be used on feasts of the Blessed Sacrament instead of white. In Spain the rare privilege of using sky-blue vestments on feasts of the Blessed Virgin has been enjoyed for some time past. Some, however, restrict this privilege to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception; but we have not been able to learn whether it is so restricted or not. A set purchased for this occasion in 1843 cost the enormous sum of $14,000 (Dublin Review, 1845, article Spain, vol. xviii.; Church of Our Fathers, ii. 259, note 32). That blue-colored vestments were once common in England, we have the most undeniable proofs. In Dugdale’s history of St. Paul’s,1 London, we find enumerated among that cathedral’s goods in 1295 several vestments of a blue color; and in an inventory of the Church of Lincoln there is mentioned “a chesable of blew damask, a cope of the same color, a cope of cloth of gold, a bawdkin of blew color” (Church of Our Fathers, ii. 260, note 33). Bishop Wykeham bequeathed to his church at Windsor “his new vestment of blue cloth, striped and embroidered with lions of gold” (ibid.)

According to the Sarum Rite, there was no other color used through Lent but red. The great minster of Peterborough had twenty-seven “red albs” for Passion Week. The Ambrosian Rite also prescribed red for the same season, and so did many churches of France (ibid.)

On the third Sunday of Advent and the fourth Sunday of Lent, called respectively “Gaudete” and “Lætare” Sundays,1 from the Introits on these days beginning with those words, cardinals wear, instead of their usual color, that of pale rose; and this is required to be the color also of their out-door dress on these occasions (Martinucci, vi. 504).

From an ancient Irish book called the Leabhar Breac, supposed to be written about the sixth century, the following curious extract is given by Dr. Moran, now Bishop of Ossory, in his Discipline of the Early Irish Church. It relates to the colors of the sacred vestments:

The priest’s mind should agree with the variety and meaning of each distinct color, and should be filled with vigilance and awe, and be withdrawn from ambition and pride, when he reflects on what the various colors typify.

The white typifies that he should be filled with confusion and shame if his heart be not chaste and shining, and his mind like the foam of the wave, or like the chalk on the gable of an oratory, or like the color of the swan in the sunshine—that is, without any particle of sin, great or small, resting in it.

The red typifies that his heart should start and tremble in his breast through terror and fear of the Son of God, for the scars and wounds of the Son of God were red upon the cross when he was crucified by the unbelieving Jews.

The green typifies that he should be filled with great faintness and distress of mind and heart; for what is understood by it is his interment at the end of his life, under the mould of the earth, for green is the original color of all the earth.

The purple typifies that he should call to mind Jesus, who is in heaven in the plenitude of his glory and majesty, and with the nine orders of angels who praise the Creator throughout all eternity.

The black typifies that he should shed bitter tears for his sins, lest he be condemned to the society of the devil and dwell perpetually in endless pain.”

From all this we clearly see that even so far back as the sixth century some churches had all the colors in use that we have now.

We conclude our remarks on sacred vestments by saying that those made of pure cloth of gold are tolerated at the present day, and may be used instead of red, white, or green (S. R. C, 28th April, 1866, 3644 [2]). Those of any other material of a yellow color are wholly interdicted, and cannot be used without permission of the Holy See.

Colors used by the Oriental Church.—The Greek Church uses but two colors the whole year round—viz., white and red, in memory of what the Spouse says in the Canticle of Canticles: “My beloved is white and ruddy.” White is their general color; red is used in all Masses for the dead and throughout the entire fast of Lent. According to the Greeks this latter color is better suited to Lent than any other, for during that season we are doing penance for the shedding of the innocent blood of our Divine Redeemer (Goar, Euchol. Græcorum, 113).

Renaudot tells us in his Commentary on the Liturgy of St. Basil, p. 160, that the Copts use no other color in their sacred vestments but white, and this for the reason that at his glorious transfiguration on Mt. Thabor it was in this brilliant color that our Lord appeared. One of the Coptic canons on this head reads as follows: “The vestments used for saying Mass ought to be of a white color, not of any other; for Christ when transfigured had vestments on brilliant as light” (ibid.) If we are to credit the reports of tourists to those regions, the Copts of to-day pay little regard to this canon, for vestments of every hue may be seen in use among them.

The Maronites use the same colors as we do.

The Syrians are partial to purple and green, and hence it happens not unfrequently that their chasubles unite these colors at one and the same time (Denzinger, 131).

The Armenians allow their lectors to wear a cope of purple silk similar to our pluvial. Their exorcists wear one of hyacinth; their acolytes of red (ibid. 133).

According to Badger (The Nestorians and their Rituals, i. p. 226), the vestments of the Nestorians are white; still, the same author tells us that their girdle and stole consist of a narrow band or scarf, with alternate white and blue crosses worked on squares of the same colors.

Having now said all that to our mind it seemed necessary to say about the sacred vestments and their colors, we pass on to another class of sacred appurtenances, called the vessels of the altar.

It may be well to remark here—we intended doing so earlier, but forgot it—that inasmuch as our book is not a Ceremonial, the reader must not expect to find in it all those little points and exceptions to rules which only a Ceremonial would comprehend. The main things are given; and, wherever we have thought it necessary for the reader’s interest, we have descended to many minute particulars, for nothing is unimportant that directly concerns the Mass. We make this apology in order not to be misunderstood.








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