To help, the church uses a ‘calendar of the Christian year’, which gives the date of each holy day and indicates the liturgical colour to use on that particular day. This calendar is essential because so many festivals and holy days move according to the date of Easter or if they fall on a more important day. It would be quite complicated to work without it.
The use of colours to mark the liturgical seasons and holy days was introduced relatively late in the life of the church. The very early church only used vestments made from undyed white linen. Whit was considered simple and modest but also festive. As it says in Psalm 51 verse 7 ‘wash me and I shall be whiter than snow’, suggesting that white is pure and uncontaminated.
It was Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) who recommended that the church use a four-coloure scheme. These colours were: White, Red, Black and Green. In 1286, the colour purple (or violet) was introduced to replace black during advent and Lent. Black continued to be used on Good Friday and for Mass at a funeral.
Green – the colour of nature, reminding us of God’s provision for our needs, Used for ferial or ordinary time. White – The colour of purity, symbolising holiness, we use it for days like Christmas, Easter and Ascension. Purple – for penitence and preperation, used throughout Advent as we prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and Lent as we prepare in penitential mood for Easter. Red – symbolises fire and blood, representing the Holy Spirit. We use it for Pentecost, ordinations and confirmations.
The Stole – The Stole is part of the eucharistic set; this means that there is one in each liturgical colour. It is a narrow band of cloth, which the priest wears round the neck. It is worn in a certain way to denote the order or office of the holder. The stole evolved from the Roman ‘ovarium’ which was a large napkin carried by servants or slaves over the left shoulder and was used to clean various vessels.
The Chasuble – This large sleeveless vestment is worn by the priest only for the celebration of the Holy Communion, as an outer garment over the top of the Eucharist vestments.
The Cassock – The black robe covering the body from neck to feet and fastened with buttons down the front. The Surplice – A very full white garment with large sleeves, it is worn over the cassock and is usually knee length.
The Tippet – Also known as a ‘preaching cloth’, it looks like a stole but is black, broader in width but shorter in length; it is worn over the surplice. It tapers out into three pleats at the neck for a better fit and is worn with a hood.
The Hood – Worn with the tippet, it derives from the medieval university hood or almuce and hangs form the neck down the back. Inside the hood is a coloured silk which denotes the field of study, whilst the length denotes the academic degree.
The Corporal – This is a square linen cloth that is laid upon the ‘fair linen’ in the middle of the altar, upon which sits the ‘compacted chalice’. It is the most sacred item of church linen, for it is on this that the consecration of the elements (bread and wine) takes place. When not in use it is folded four ways into a smaller square and kept in the silk burse.
The Purificator – This is used for wiping and drying the chalice and paten during and after the communion.
The Pall – This is like a square envelope with a board inside to make it firm. There is also a cross embroidered in the centre. This is used to cover the priest’s wafer as it lies on the paten; it is also used to cover the mouth of the chalice when it contains wine. This helps prevent dust or insects from contaminating the wine.
The Lavabo Towel – Used for drying the priest’s fingers after he has washed them before the consecration of the elements.
The Credence Cloth – A fancy lace cloth used to cover the credence table, a small table that bears the cruets, wafer box and lavabo bowl used at the communion.