In yesterday’s post, I gave an overview of the Christian year, including a chart that listed key themes and colors. Today, I want to talk a bit more about liturgical colors and their meaning.

The use of color and visual art in worship is nothing new. For centuries, the Roman Catholic church incorporated elaborate artistic works in her sanctuaries. But, with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and especially in the Reformed branch of the Reformation (my theological tradition), the perceived excesses of Catholic art in worship led to the virtual excommunication of visual art from worship. Visual symbolism in Reformed churches was minimal (cross, pulpit, baptismal font) and modest.

This artistic minimalism continued to be the dominant force in most evangelical churches in the United States, though some mainline Protestant churches developed visual traditions along the familiar lines of the Roman Catholic tradition.

In the last decade, however, many churches throughout the Western world have “discovered” the power of the visual in worship. Owing partly to the pervasive influence of visual imagery in our culture, partly to the cross-pollination between different streams of Christian tradition, and partly to the power of digital projection, churches that would never have considered the use of visual art in worship have not only begun to use it, but even to major in it. Many large evangelical and charismatic churches, the kind that only twenty years ago would have incorporated only words and music in worship, have even hired staff whose primary responsibility is to provide stunning visuals for liturgical purposes (though they would avoid the word “liturgical” in favor of something like “celebrative” or “worshipful”). (Photo: The cross at the front of the sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church.)

IPC-Chancel-Cross-5.jpgI believe that, for the most part, the rediscovery of visual art in worship is a positive development. Yet some churches have set off on the journey of liturgical art as if they were groundbreaking pioneers, rather than pilgrims traveling along a well-worn path. These churches might do well to look into the use (and occasional misuse) of visual art in Christian history. We all have much to learn from the centuries of Christian worship that precede us. Or, to use a different metaphor, we who are beginning to utilize the visual in worship might just find in Christian tradition a treasure trove with gems just waiting to be used afresh.

In my opinion, the colors of the Christian year are part of this treasure trove. The intentional use of colors and color changes in worship spaces can enliven and deeper our worship, as well as add to the beauty of the experience. Colors can symbolize truth. Colors can delight the eyes. Colors can move the heart. Colors can suggest and symbolize and hint in a way that words cannot.

Let me give just one example among many from the worship in Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I served as senior pastor of sixteen years. One of the most striking aspects of the worship space in this church is the cross at the front of our sanctuary. Its simplicity and power convey symbolically and emotionally the truth of the Gospel. During my tenure as pastor, along with the members of my congregation, I meditated upon this cross many times, remembering what Jesus did for me. It impacted both the depth and the passion of my worship. (Photo: The Irvine Presbyterian cross on Good Friday. In the foreground are crosses upon which members of the congregation nailed pieces of paper on which we listed our sins.)


The cross stands alone, not as a decoration, but as a simple image of salvation. We never hung anything from the cross, except for one day of the year: Good Friday. Early in the morning of Good Friday, somebody draped a basic black cloth over the horizontal bar of the cross. I knew in advance that this would be there. I was not surprised to see it. Yet, every year, when I entered our sanctuary on Good Friday and saw the black drape, my heart was struck. For some reason that black cloth hanging on the cross brought home to me the horror and the wonder of Jesus’s death. I often found myself brought to tears by that compelling yet basic symbol.

This is just one example among many possibilities from my personal experience. It illustrates, I think, the potential power of color to motivate and shape our worship.
I know that some of you will relate immediately to what I’m saying because your experience is similar. Others of you will understand what I’m describing, but it isn’t something you yourself know in a personal way. Some of my readers will no doubt wonder if the use of color is consistent with biblical teaching. My response to this concern would point to God’s good creation of a colorful world. I would also underscore the colors of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament, not to mention the brilliant colors of the new creation as seen, for example, in Revelation 21. Surely a God who has created such a wide spectrum of color would welcome our use of his colorful creation to worship him.

Speaking of worship, tomorrow I’ll say a bit more about how paying attention to the Christian year can enrich our worship. Stay tuned . . . .

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