In his oft-reproduced “Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian,” the late comedian Robin Williams includes the statement “The church year is color-coded.” Ours is not the only church to use liturgical colors throughout the Christian year, and to be frank, some provide more formal guidance on their use. Note the current Lutheran calendar suggesting colors for Sundays and feasts, or the Roman Catholic “General Instruction of the Roman Missal,” which requires particular colors for each Office and Mass. Even other provinces of the Anglican Communion seem to have more to say than ours. For example, the Church of England's Common Worship gives liturgical-color recommendations.
No doubt, various calendars published within The Episcopal Church include such recommendations. Nevertheless, there is not a properly authorized rubric for us that either suggests or requires a certain scheme. Thus it has, unfortunately, become a matter of priest-craft and sometimes of debate.
Let us begin with the four most common liturgical colors, before proceeding to those whose use is more dependent on local practice and questions of churchmanship. Violet is used during seasons of penitence and expectation: Advent and Lent. There has lately been debate regarding whether or not Advent is primarily penitential, but the season’s steady reminders of the “four last things” (death, judgment, heaven, and hell) should certainly suggest penance. And the act of supplication, whether for Christ’s return in Advent or for the forgiveness of our sins in Lent, is penitential, as it reminds us that there is a profound distinction between ourselves and God, bridged only by the death and resurrection of our Lord. Thus, violet is also appropriate for funerals (supplication for the departed), Ember Days (supplication for the Church), and Rogation Days (supplication for protection from disaster). White symbolizes joy, purity, and truth. Thus it is used for the seasons of Christmas and Easter, as well as for Principal Feasts (except Pentecost), Major Feasts that can take precedence of a Sunday, and the other Feasts of Our Lord (except Holy Cross Day) listed on pages 15 and 16 of our Book of Common Prayer, as well as feasts for saints who are not martyrs.
White is also appropriate for baptisms, marriages, and confirmations held on ferias (i.e., normal weekdays), because of their joyful nature and because those Sacraments encourage holiness of life. It has become common to use white for funerals as well, the argument being that funerals are primarily celebrations of the Resurrection from the Dead which Christ has effected and which the deceased will experience on the Last Day, and only secondarily an occasion to pray for the repose of the deceased's soul. This is not a debate for this forum, but it is worth noting that both elements (the celebratory and the supplicatory) are present in the prayer book rite, and thus it is a matter of emphasis rather than a binary choice. White may also be used on Maundy Thursday, though again this is a question of emphasis: Is it primarily a celebration of the institution of the blessed sacrament or is its context within Christ's Passion primary, making red more appropriate?
Red signifies at least two (not unrelated) concepts: the blood of Christ and the martyrs and the fire of the Holy Spirit. So on the day on which the Holy Spirit alighted on the apostles we use this color. Ordinations held on ferias typically use red to remind WHY DO WE DO THAT? [ ] Liturgical Colors & Seasons by the Rev. John Drymon us of the Holy Spirit's continued action from that first Pentecost, and often red is used for confirmations on ferias as well. Red’s other meaning, blood, is seen in the color’s use on Passion Sunday, Holy Cross Day, and the feasts of martyrs. We see the pneumatological and the sanguinary elements (the Spirit and the blood) combined on the feasts of the apostles (excepting John, who is believed to have died naturally in old age).
Finally comes green, though this most common liturgical color has a more obscure history. Some suppose it symbolizes growth, renewal, and hope. Others have suggested that green was simply a more ordinary color for fabrics and thus appropriate for the stretches of “ordinary time.” These lengthy periods comprise the Sundays (except the Baptism of Our Lord, Trinity Sunday, and arguably Christ the King Sunday) and ferias following the Epiphany and Pentecost.
In addition to these four colors, we see four more: two with historically based use on rarer occasions (black and rose), and two used for entire seasons but only locally and whose appropriateness may be spurious (blue and the “lenten array”). Black was used for penitential seasons, in most cases in the West, until the thirteenth century, eventually giving way to the slightly less gloomy but still penitential violet. This leaves black currently for Good Friday, All Souls' Day, funerals, and other offices and masses for the dead. Rose vestments are used on Gaudete Sunday (Advent 3) and Laetare Sunday (Lent 4), likely because of the slightly more cheerful nature of these liturgies compared with the rest of Advent and Lent, symbolizing joy in the midst of penitence.
As for blue and the so-called lenten array (a rough or homespun fabric), there is less to go on. Some argue that these were respectively the colors of Advent and Lent in the Sarum Use, liturgies of the Diocese in Salisbury during the fourteenth century. But it is unclear whether this pattern was actually followed in Salisbury, and even if so, why such a peculiar, local practice should inform usage elsewhere.
The great Percy Dearmer wrote: [S]ome clergy, through a laudable desire to be faithful to English tradition, have attempted to revive the local Salisbury use, and thus have considerably puzzled both themselves and the faithful...No doubt, had the word Sarum never been introduced, the loyal Anglican clergy would have used the words English Use, and the hitherto untried plan of honestly obeying the Prayer Book would have become general, to the honour of the Church and the confusion of her enemies.
Nowhere does he find evidence of blue being used for Advent. Arguments for blue based on Advent’s being less penitential than Lent or on the season's putative Marian nature likewise do not seem to be borne out in the literature.
Dearmer does see some evidence for white cloth with red or blue devices being used during Lent in the sixteenth century, but contends it was a popular abuse and would merely confuse the faithful if reintroduced. The more modern white with red, gray, and black stenciling seems to be based on the recommendations of A.S. Duncan-Jones in the last century, though all Jones says about this color scheme is that “plain, but bright, [it] strengthen[s] the appeal, to concentrate devotion on the plea for the creation of a new and contrite heart.” I cannot say whether or not it succeeds in connecting the signifier to the signified, though there is merit in the effect it is meant to elicit. I, for one, am not qualified to judge that sort of claim.