Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Colors of Worship

In the last few decades, the Protestant communions have gotten used to the pattern of the Christian Year: It starts with Advent as a four-Sunday prelude to a twelve-day Christmas, capped off with a single-day celebration of Epiphany. There follows a period of indefinite length of no particular seasonal designation. Then Lent appears as a forty-day prelude to Easter which runs for fifty days until the single Day of Pentecost. More Sundays not belonging to any season follow until the next Advent.

It’s a tidy pattern built around two major seasons (Christmas and Easter), each preceded by a time of preparation (Advent and Lent), and each concluded by a single day celebration (Epiphany and Pentecost). The other Sundays fall into two segments which are called “ordinary time.”*

Now all of these seasons and days, and some other days besides, have been assigned particular colors. Purple is the penitential color for Advent and Lent, and further signifies royalty referring to the rule of Christ. White points to the purity of Christ and is used for Christmas, Epiphany and Easter. Red is reserved for Pentecost but may also appear on Good Friday representing the blood of Christ, as does black for mourning, or no color at all with the worship space stripped of all decorations. Blue is associated with the Virgin Mary and is sometimes used at Christmas. Gold, another sign of royalty, sometimes appears at Christmas, Epiphany and Easter. Ordinary time is colored green, the pervasive color in the natural world, thereby signifying growth.

At the front of the church I regularly attend is a set of colored glass panels. They are easily removed and can be exchanged with panes of different colors representing the seasons and special days of the Christian Year. When this happens along with change of the cloths on pulpit and table to correspond with the calendar colors, the effect is that the “look” of the worship space is significantly transformed.

I’ve begun to notice that the change of colors with the Christian Year seasons may be more powerful than just swapping out simple symbols. Symbols, as we know, can have considerable impact and influence in worship, yet they are obvious and direct. When the “look” of the room is changed significantly, the impact is more indirect. The colors, in and of themselves, can effect the mood of the worshippers.

We are told by interior decorators, artists, psychologists and others that various colors influence attitudes. For example: Purple, depending on how the red and blue are balanced, can cause uneasiness. Red evokes strong emotions and generates excitement. White reflects light and creates a sense of openness and spaciousness. Green is a calming refreshing color. And so forth.

When a worship space is transformed by the change in color to correspond with the season or special day in the Christian Year, the transformation may well educe subconscious emotional responses from people in the pews. So it would appear.

Being absolutely no expert in color or its use in this way, I’m wondering if others have a sense of the power of color in worship. Do the seasons and special days of the Church year bring substantial changes to the d├ęcor of your worship space? Are you aware of any studies in the impact of liturgical colors on the mood or attitude of worshippers?
*Some folks object to the use of “ordinary time,” because it seems to somehow denigrate those Sundays, all of which are special. So they attach them to the previous special day, and refer to them as “the Sundays after Epiphany” or “the Season of Pentecost.” This not only deflates the power of the special days, it blurs the emphases of individual Sundays in ordinary time.

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