Signs and symbols
Liturgical colors can orient us to the season of the church year and help to engage the sense of sight in worship. White and gold symbolize days and seasons of joy and mark pivotal events in the life of Christ. Red symbolizes the work of the Holy Spirit and the sacrifices of martyrs. Purple (and sometimes blue, in Advent) designates a season of penitence and preparation, such as Lent.
This was not always the case. For the first thousand years of the church’s history, little thought was given to liturgical color. White vestments were most common, with more elaborate garments and paraments (of whatever color) reserved for important festivals. The 12th through 16th centuries brought localized experiments with liturgical color, but no standard practices prevailed until 1570, when the Roman Catholic Church established a normative sequence of colors to accompany the church calendar. Calvinists in the sixteenth century eschewed these rubrics, however, preferring black vestments. The past two centuries have seen a resurgence in the use of liturgical colors, propelled by a new appreciation for the aesthetic dimensions of worship, as well as the marketing efforts of church supply stores.
Here is a typical schedule for the use of liturgical colors:
- Advent: purple or blue
- Christmas (12 days) to Epiphany (Jan. 6): white and gold
- Ordinary Time (Jan. 7 through the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday): green, with the exception of Baptism of the Lord and Transfiguration of the Lord, both white
- Ash Wednesday through the first five weeks of Lent: purple
- Palm / Passion Sunday: red and/or purple
- Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week: purple
- Maundy Thursday: purple (until the church is stripped bare)
- Good Friday: no color; church remains stripped bare
- Easter Season (including Ascension of the Lord): white and gold
- Day of Pentecost: red
- Ordinary Time (Monday after Pentecost through Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent): green, with the exception of Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ Day (or first Sunday in November), and Christ the King, all white
- Additionally, white is used for funerals. Red is sometimes used for ordinations, installations and church dedications and anniversaries. Baptisms, communion services and weddings should retain the color of the season.
Most liturgical vestments have their origins in the street clothes of an earlier era. The oldest is the alb (from the Latin albus, for “white”), a long white garment derived from the ancient Roman tunic. Early Christians received a bright, new alb at the time of their baptism. The alb has come to represent equality in ministry, and can be worn by any baptized liturgical leader. The cincture is a rope belt worn with the alb.
The Geneva gown is a black robe, once commonly worn in public by those with academic credentials. The Geneva gown symbolizes scholarly training and learned preaching, a historical value and strength of the Reformed tradition. The addition of three bars called chevrons to the sleeve signifies the doctoral degree. Bands or tabs — upside-down V-shaped collars — are magisterial insignia sometimes worn with the Geneva gown.
The poncho-like chasuble had its origins as a warm raincoat. In the middle ages, the chasuble came to be associated with the priestly administration of the Eucharist. Worn over the alb, the chasuble was elaborately and colorfully embroidered, and was said to represent the yoke of Christ. Some in the Protestant/Reformed tradition feel that the chasuble conveys priestly pomp and privilege; others believe it to be a more appropriate garment for liturgical use than one displaying academic rank. A stole is a long band of cloth, generally color-coordinated with the liturgical season. Its practical origin was as a scarf, though it has come to be associated with ordained ministry and (like the chasuble) the yoke of service to Christ.
Continuing in the tradition of the Reformers, some pastors choose to wear contemporary street clothes — business suits, for instance — to downplay the impression of clericalism and to emphasize the ministry of all believers. However, the risk in this choice is that of identification with the power and privilege of corporate culture.
As Presbyterians, we affirm the sovereignty of God above all earthly powers, profess our loyalty to God before all others, and confess the universality of Christ’s church in the world. Symbols of national sovereignty and loyalty in worship can send mixed messages about these essential tenets of the faith. For this reason, many congregations avoid the use of flags in worship. Churches that choose to display national flags should be mindful of the ambiguities this may engender. If a national flag is used alongside a symbol of God’s realm (such as the popularly accepted “Christian flag,” found mostly in U.S. congregations), the Christian flag is appropriately given a preeminent place. However, the cross itself remains an eloquent and universal emblem of the Christian church throughout the world, and is certainly a sufficient sign of our faith.
Particularly in times of war or national tragedy, many understand flags and other patriotic symbols to be a signs of national solidarity and support for those serving in the armed forces. These symbols hold deep affection and convey important values — particularly in the appropriate context. However, when it comes to worship, there is no substitute for our prayers.
The Advent wreath visually marks the time leading up to Christmas and symbolizes the increasing light as Christ draws near to us. The use of such wreaths began as a family devotional practice in German homes in the 1600s. Widespread liturgical use only dates back to the middle of the 20th century.
Each of the four purple candles around the periphery of the wreath marks one of the Sundays in Advent; the white Christ candle in the center is lit on Christmas Eve. The Book of Common Worship (165-166) provides scripture readings to accompany the lighting of each candle. You may also consider singing subsequent verses of the same Advent hymn each week as the candles are lit. Some Advent wreaths include a pink candle. This custom can be traced to medieval practice that set aside the third Sunday in Lent (and later, Advent) as an occasion of joy and a respite from the rigors of the penitential season. If your Advent wreath has a pink candle, you may light it on the third Sunday of Advent.
Over the years, some have attached particular interpretations to individual candles, such as shepherds, angels, wise men and Mary; or hope, faith, love and joy. Far more important than any direct correlation of candle to a special meaning, however, is our growing celebration of Jesus’ birth and anticipation of Christ’s coming again.
The use of the Paschal candle (or Easter candle) can be traced to the Easter Vigils of the fourth century. At the beginning of the Vigil, the tall, white Easter candle is lit from the new fire, a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. This is accompanied by the singing of a special hymn, the Exultet, which celebrates God’s creation. As the Easter candle itself came to symbolize the resurrection, it grew in stature and significance, assuming lofty proportions and placed on enormous candle stands.
In current liturgical practice, somewhat more modest Easter candles are placed near the baptismal font and are lit throughout the season of Easter (from the Easter Vigil through the Day of Pentecost). In some congregations, they are also used at baptisms and funerals as a way of recalling our dying and rising with Christ. Modern Easter candles are frequently adorned with the cross and inscribed with the date of the current year.
The symbol of the seashell has been associated with baptism since the first centuries of the Christian church. We know this from paintings on the walls of the catacombs where early Christians worshiped which depict people being baptized with water poured from a seashell. That artistic theme has been carried down through the centuries, so that we now find seashells on church banners related to baptism, in stained glass windows, incorporated into the design of baptismal fonts and printed on baptism announcements. Sometimes the shell is pictured with three drops of water, an allusion to the Triune God in whose name we are baptized.
Like many ancient symbols, the origin is likely a practical matter: how to pour a generous amount of water in the rite of baptism? Since most fonts were not deep enough for total submersion, candidates for baptism would wade into the water, and a presider would pour water over their heads. You can scoop up a greater volume of water in a seashell or some other vessel than you can hold in your hand. A larger quantity of water speaks more fully of the gift of God's grace, poured out for us. Perhaps the use of the shell was preferred to other vessels because it is an item found in nature, from a creature that lives its life submerged in water — as those who are baptized live a new life, immersed in the Christian faith. Furthermore, the seashell reminds us that, in baptism, Christ calls us to discipleship, even as he called the first disciples by the seashore.
There are many creative interpretations of this sign, often found stitched into paraments or inscribed on brass crosses — "In His Service," "I Have Suffered," "Iesus Hominum Salvator" (Jesus, Savior of Humanity), or "In Hoc Signo" (In This Sign). These are all "backronyms," however, spurious acronyms created after the fact. The symbol is actually an ancient monogram for Christ (or Christogram), derived from the first three letters of "Jesus" in Greek: iota - eta - sigma: Ι Η Σ.
The palm frond (from the leaves of the Aracaceae) was a symbol of triumph in Roman times, bestowed upon the winners of military or athletic contests. They were the original pom-poms, or if you prefer, those giant foam fingers at football games.
Therefore, when the people of Jerusalem greet Jesus with palm branches (Matthew 21, e.g.), they aren't just grabbing what is ready-to-hand to express their jubilation. The palms symbolize victory, a fitting tribute for the return of a triumphant king. There are multiple levels of irony in this scene: the one they greet is a not a king in a chariot, but a humble man riding on a donkey; he comes not with military might, but to establish a reign of peace; his "battle" is ahead of him, and it will seem to end in tragic and crushing defeat; the very crowds who are now crying "hosanna" ("save us") will soon be shouting "crucify him!"
For the early Christians who suffered under Roman persecution, the symbol of the palm branch took on new significance as a sign of faithfulness and perseverance under the threat of death. In Revelation 7, the white-robed redeemed from every tribe and nation —"those who have come out of the great ordeal"— wave their palm branches around the throne of God, crying out: "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" In the first few centuries of the church, psalms were strongly connected with martyrdom, to the extent that it was once assumed that an engraving of a palm branch on a tomb was sufficient proof that the one buried within was a martyr.
The palm tree (Hebrew: tamar) has deep roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. After leaving Egypt, the people of Israel first camped in Elim, "where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees" (Exodus 15:27). The branch of the palm tree is one of four arboreal symbols associated with the festival of booths (Leviticus 23:40 and Nehemiah 8:15). Jericho is called the "city of palm trees" (look out, Miami) in Deuteronomy 34:3 and 2 Chronicles 28:15. Deborah, prophet and judge, held court under a palm tree (Judges 4:5). Solomon's temple was decorated with carvings of palm trees on the walls and doors (1 Kings 6), and the new temple of Ezekiel's vision is similarly adorned (Ezekiel 40-41). The palm tree is used as a simile for the righteous in the Psalms (92:12), the body of the beloved in the Song of Songs (7:7-8), and the former glory of Israel in Hosea 9:13. A palm tree uprooted or cut down symbolizes the judgment of Israel in Isaiah 9:14 and Egypt in Isaiah 19:15. In Joel 1:12 the withered palm represents the desolation of Judah.
According to a recent news release, around three million palm fronds are used in the United States each year. The Eco-Palms Project, a collaboration among Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the University of Minnesota, seeks to promote sustainable agricultural practices and provide fair compensation to the Mexican and Guatemalan farmers who harvest palm branches.