Why Do Priests Wear Purple During Advent?

A Time of Penance, Preparation, and Sacrifice

Vatican - Religion - Advent - Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI wearing purple vestments during Advent. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Catholic churches are normally quite colorful places. From stained-glass windows to statues, from the items that adorn the altars to the Stations of the Cross, every color under the sun can be found somewhere in most Catholic churches. And one place where a whole palette of color can be found throughout the year is in the priest's vestments, the outer items of the clothing that he wears while celebrating Mass.

To Everything There Is a Season

There are many different colors of vestments, and each corresponds to a different liturgical season or type of celebration. The most common color for vestments is green, because green, which symbolizes hope, is used during Ordinary Time, the longest season of the liturgical year. White and gold are used during the Easter and Christmas seasons, to symbolize joy and purity; red, on Pentecost and for celebrations of the Holy Spirit, but also for the feasts of martyrs and any commemoration of Christ's Passion; and purple, during Advent and Lent.

Why Purple During Advent?

Which brings us to a common question: Why does Advent share the color purple with Lent? As a reader once wrote to me:

I noticed our priest started wearing purple vestments on the first Sunday of Advent. Aren't purple vestments usually worn during Lent? At Christmas time, I would have expected something more festive, like red or green or white.

Beyond the color of the vestments used during the season, Advent shares some other features with Lent: The altar cloth is purple, and if your church normally has flowers or plants near the altar, those are removed. And during Mass, the Gloria ("Glory to God in the highest") is not sung during Advent, either.

Advent Is a "Little Lent"

All of these things are signs of the penitential nature of Advent and a reminder that, during Advent, the Christmas season hasn't started yet. Purple is the color of penance, preparation, and sacrifice—three things that, alas, too often fall by the wayside during Advent these days, since Advent roughly corresponds to the secular "holiday season" that extends, in the United States, from Thanksgiving Day until Christmas Day.

But historically, Advent was indeed a time of penance, preparation, and sacrifice, and the season was known as a "little Lent." That's why the penitential color of purple makes an appearance during Advent, the organ is muted, and the Gloria—one of the most festive hymns of the Mass—isn't sung. During Advent, our thoughts, even on Sunday, are supposed to be on preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and at the Second Coming.

But Wait—There's More

Just as during Lent, however, the Church allows us some rest as we pass the halfway point of Advent. The third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, because "Gaudete" ("Rejoice") is the first word of the entrance antiphon at Mass that Sunday. On Gaudete Sunday, the priest will likely wear rose vestments—a color that still reminds us of the penitential purple but which also has a lightness and joy to it, reminding us that Christmas is drawing near.