The Advent Blues
by Gary D. Penkala
written: December 2000
I've come to want to close my eyes at Advent liturgies.
The local parish, since the coming of the present pastor, has been a model of liturgical tackiness, rooted in the dated experiments of the 60s and 70s.
The liturgical "agenda" manifests itself during Advent by the use of unambiguously blue vestments and decorations.
A few years ago, even the Advent wreath was populated by 3 blue candles and 1 white candle.
The parish is located at the heart of a large, state university, and at one school Mass a naive fourth grade student asked why we were lighting candles for the college football team (whose colors are blue and white).
I cringed on the organ bench at so misleading a symbol.
Now... I close my eyes.
Let's explore this controversial situation, the issue of blue vestments in Roman Catholic churches.
The rubrics in the Missale Romanum list the five liturgical colors: "albo [white], rubro [red], viridi [green], violaceo [violet] et nigro [black]."
The color violaceo [violet] is prescribed for the seasons of Advent and Lent, though the text notes that "coloris rosacei [the color rose]" may replace violet on the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete) and the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare).
Note well that there is absolutely no official distinction made between the color for Advent and the color for Lent.
Further, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (1985) says, "Violet is used in Lent and Advent."
Again, no official delineation separating Advent color from Lent color.
The GIRM goes on to state, "The conference of bishops may choose and propose to the Apostolic See adaptations suited to the needs and culture of people."
It is important to note that this request for cultural adaptation comes from the national bishops' conference.
It is not the prerogative of a priest.
The bishops of the United States have made no such petition to Rome.
Where has the notion of blue come from then?
Blue is prescribed in some dioceses of Spain, Mexico and South America for the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Not in the United States, though.
Blue is allowed in Episcopal Churches in the United State as an optional color for Advent.
Not in the Catholic Church, though.
Blue is used in some Eastern Rites (e.g. Mozarabic) for feasts of the Blessed Virgin.
Not in the Roman Rite, though.
"If our neighbors are wearing blue during Advent," muse the progressive priests, "why shouldn't we?"
The issue here is not color.
The issue here is individualism vs. obedience.
Priests who wear blue vestments are not naive.
They know full well that blue is not a valid liturgical color in the U.S., so they conjure up many and sundry arguments to somehow justify their disobedience -- and they get mighty steamed when anyone objects to their smoke-screen.
Here's how one liturgically-loose pastor tries to rationalize his royal blue vestments [published in the parish bulletin]:
The official liturgical color for the Season of Advent is violet (which is often called Purple).
Violet is BLUE PURPLE.
Those who have proposed the use of Blue-purple for Advent have done so to distinguish from the red-purple color of the Lenten Penitential Season.
Also, the Blessed Mother's color is blue, and she represents the yearning of God's chosen people and their year of preparation for the great event which begins with the Birth of Christ.
Apart from the rather skewed logic, this obfuscation might even work, if the color worn weren't so blatantly blue!
Calling blue vestments "purple" or "blue-purple" insults the intelligence of the congregation, who are unmistakably looking at blue.
For a color to be symbolically effective, it must register in the viewer's perceiving it as purple, not in the wearer's deeming it as such.
The technique of "appealing to the Blessed Mother" is popular to gain sympathy with traditional Catholics.
It should be noted that the five liturgical colors mentioned above pertain to the general vestment color; linings, trim and decoration may be added at will -- and may certainly be BLUE!
Rich white vestments with deep blue trim and perhaps silver lining are the perfect option for liturgies honoring the Blessed Mother.
White is the liturgical Marian color.
Why would Mary ever hope for priests to wear rebellious blue "statements" in her honor?
As I said before, the controversy is not over color.
Although the Church officially makes no distinction between Advent violet and Lent violet, she does recognize that the color violet is in itself a blend of red and blue, and thus open to many variations.
While neither extreme is legitimate (funny how no one proposes the other extreme red for Lent), any of the hues between them can be used.
Both seasons maintain a penitential mood (no Gloria, for example), but there are liturgical differences.
Advent retains the "Alleluia" and the "Te Deum," allows certain limited organ music, and in general reflects a sense of expectation and contained joy.
Lent strikes the "Alleluia" and "Te Deum" from the liturgy, prohibits organ music except to accompany singing, and is most clearly a time of repentance, metanoia, and baptismal preparation (preparing to "die with Christ").
For these reasons, parishes are justified in perhaps "segregating" their violet vestments into two groups, those with more bluish tones to be used for Advent, and those with more reddish tones to be used for Lent.
The key to legitimizing this schema is that all the vestments be clearly recognized as VIOLET / PURPLE (especially by fourth graders!).
But this is apparently not sufficient distinction for the progressive priests who expand their wardrobes in the sacristies at the expense (both financially and catechetically) of their congregations.
No, the problem is not color, but "independence."
I recently responded to a liberal liturgist who railed against me:
You're losing me royally with that fixation about "blue vestments."
Who cares, why should we?
I think you're too stuck on printed "rubrics," with not much seeming awareness of how "ritual" (big difference) really works.
My sheer frustration was evident in my response to him:
I honestly TRY to understand other points of view, but on this issue I'm totally befuddled.
Why on earth would a pastor (and I know one personally) spend parish money (or even his own) to purchase blue vestments when he knows full well they are not allowed?
Is he thrilled at challenging authority?
Is it a "fashion" statement?
Is it false liturgical sensitivity?
Is it hopping on the "progressive" band wagon?
Is it a matter of vanity or pride?
Is it "congregationalism"?
Does he think, "What I wear should be MY decision."?
Is he mocking an established tradition of liturgical colors?
Is he impatient -- "The Church moves too slowly for with-it me!"?
I might summarize these statements thus: The individual has placed himself above tradition and corporate wisdom -- "I know better!" -- and humility can take a hike.
As I've said SO many times in such discussions, if there are more important issues than vestment color (and there are)... then stop shopping for new ones, stick to what we're asked to do, avoid the controversies and the wasted energy, and get on with the work of the Church!
Must we wear blue to make liturgy work?
I sometimes wonder about priests in blue and how they deal with the issue of authority and humble obedience.
When I see a priest wearing blue, I see red.
If, in despair, I close my eyes, it blends into violet!
See Liturgical Planning Pages: Advent - Year A
See Liturgical Planning Pages: Advent - Year B
See Liturgical Planning Pages: Advent - Year C