Colouring Our World
(Isa.61:1-2a, 10-11; 1Thess.5:16-24; Jn.1:6-8, 19-28)
At Christmas we often see red and green colours everywhere. In Advent the Church traditionally wears purple, and today, on Gaudete Sunday, we wear rose-coloured vestments.
What do all these hues mean? Are they simply decorations or are they something more than that?
Let’s begin with colour itself. Colour is what we see when light bounces off an object, and each wavelength of light produces a different shade. Warm colours like red, orange and yellow have longer wavelengths and tend to reflect energy and excitement. And cool colours like blue, green and violet have shorter wavelengths and tend to evince feelings of harmony and peace.
This helps explain why colours have meaning in every culture. It’s also why Cezanne said that colour is where the brain meets the universe, and Kandinsky said that colour is a power which directly influences the soul.
In the 12th Century, the Church adopted certain colours to reinforce the theology of its liturgical seasons. So now we usually see purple in Advent and Lent, symbolising royalty, penance and waiting.
But today, on Gaudete Sunday we see rose-pink vestments. Why? It’s because Gaudete means ‘rejoice,’ and today we rejoice because we’re halfway through Advent and Jesus is coming.
In the Church’s Ordinary Time, green symbolises life, growth and rebirth (Ps.1:3). On Good Friday, Palm Sunday, Pentecost and the feast days of martyrs, red symbolises passion and sacrifice. And at Christmas, Easter and other special days, white symbolises joy, purity of soul and the Resurrection of Christ.
It’s not surprising that the Church uses these colours, because the Bible is full of them and each one means something in our journey of faith. This is especially true of the three primary colours of red, yellow and blue.
The Hebrew word oudem, for example, means ‘red clay,’ and it symbolises humanity and sacrificial offerings for one’s sins (Lev.17:11). It’s also the root word for the name of Adam (Gen.2:7), and it reflects Christ’s crucifixion on the Cross (Col.1:20).
Yellow is charuts in Hebrew; it points to gold, the precious metal that represents the sovereignty of God. Solomon’s Temple was covered in gold (1Kgs.6), and the New Jerusalem is described as a city of gold (Rev.21:18). Jesus also receives a gift of gold at his birth (Mt.2:11).
And in Hebrew, blue is tekelet, a rare and mystical shade that represents the sea, sky and heavens (Ex.24:10) and the Word of God. It also points to the healing power of God (Lk.8:40-48).
All these wonderful colours are manifestations of light, and significantly, it’s through colour that most people perceive our world. Indeed, colour is one of the languages God uses to communicate with us. It’s how He makes His creation known to us.
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist talks about light. However, this light is not a thing, but a person. It’s Jesus himself. ‘I am the light of the world,’ Jesus says. ‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (Jn.8:12).
Over the years, many writers have been drawn to this idea of Jesus as light. St Augustine often referred to God as the ‘light of my heart,’ and said that to find the truth, the soul needs to be enlightened by a heavenly light. [i]
In the Middle Ages, many artists were also fascinated by light and since then we’ve seen remarkable works of art emerge, including the most incredible stained-glass windows. The common message here is that through His divine light, Jesus colours our world and gives it purpose and meaning.
Let’s close with a story from Kelly Grovier’s book The Art of Colour. After decades of study, he writes, he has concluded that colour isn’t simply the language in which painters and sculptors speak. Rather, it’s a hidden knowledge and an essential truth.
It all started, he said, when he learned of how Giotto’s misshapen bones were found beneath Florence Cathedral. It wasn’t DNA that revealed his remains; it was the colours he’d used in his art. The bones not only reflected the tortured posture of a painter who had spent his life doing contortions reaching high frescoes, as Giotto had done; they also contained high levels of arsenic, lead and other minerals – the main ingredients used in Giotto’s paintings.
In the alchemy of death, Giotto had become his own painting.
It then struck Grovier that pigments are not just intellectual concepts. They are made of grit and grime. They have weight and texture. They pulse through our veins and seep deep into our bones.
They are also capable of resurrection and they tell secrets from the grave. [ii]
Just like Jesus Christ Himself.
[ii] Kelly Grovier, The Art of Colour, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2023, pp.9, 15-16.