Altar cloths, along with special vestments worn by Catholic priests, hold specific meaning in the church and act as a unifying symbol to Catholic worshipers throughout the world. According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, Pope Innocent III was one of the first to emphasize the distinctive colors circa 1216. The four symbolic colors used in Catholic ceremonies are: red, white, violet and green, while black is sometimes used for funerals.
Green altar cloths and vestments are used in standard Catholic masses, between seasons of celebration and special observances. Specifically, the altar is decorated in green after the Epiphany and after Pentecost. Green is indicative of plants and trees, representing growth and hope for life eternal.
During feasts of the martyrs, feasts of The Passion, Palm Sunday and Pentecost, the altar cloth and vestment is red, symbolizing fire and blood to represent the sacrifice of martyrs. The educational forum Catholic Online also notes that red is the color worn by church cardinals in regular, non-liturgical settings.
Representing innocence, purity, triumph and joy, the color white is used for altar cloths and vestments during the Christmas and Easter seasons, celebrating the birth and resurrection of Christ. White is also used during feasts of the Lord, All Saints Day and weddings. Additionally, white is the color of the Pope's daily vestments. White altar cloths are occasionally replaced with or embellished by gold.
Violet or Purple
Violet altar cloths are used to represent suffering, mourning and penitence. It is used during the season of Lent, when Catholic worshipers often give up worldly pleasures and make an extra effort to give up vices, in honor of Christ's sacrifice. It is also used during Advent, except for the third Sunday of the season, when it is replaced with pink. Other occasions for purple throughout the year include Rogation days, Ember days and vigils. Also, bishops, archbishops and patriarchs of the church traditionally dress in purple.
When the occasion calls for mourning and sorrow, the color used for altar cloths and vestments is black. It is the common color used in funeral masses, and is also observed on All Saints Day. As noted by Catholic Online, the color black is not used for funerals of baptized Catholics who pass away before the "age of reason;" they are memorialized with white cloths, symbolizing joy due to the idea that baptized innocents go directly to heaven.
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