THE COLOUR(S) OF VESTMENTS
Q: What do the different colors of the priests' robes mean? What are the proper colors of vestments for each season?
A: The clergy wear two kinds of robes, non-liturgical and liturgical. The non-liturgical robes are the ordinary daily clothing of the clergy, worn underneath 'liturgical robes'. Liturgical robes, or 'vestments', are worn during church services. The non-liturgical robes are called cassocks (Greek rason, Slavonic podriasnik) and outer cassocks (Greek exo-rason, Slavonic riasa). Cassocks are floor-length garments which have long sleeves fitted like shirt sleeves. Outer cassocks are also floor-length garments, but they're more loosely fitting, with very large sleeves. In the Russian tradition, because monastic clergy wear dark colored cassocks (usually black, dark blue, or dark brown) and married clergy wear whatever color cassocks they have (often lighter colors), they're referred to as black clergy and white clergy.
The practice of wearing colored cassocks comes from the times called Turkocratia, the Turkish rule, or 'Turkish yoke'. Moslem clergy reserved the right to wear white or black to themselves, thinking to humiliate the Christian clergy by forcing them to wear bright colored clothing. Once the Greek Church was free of Turkish rule, they dropped the practice of wearing colored cassocks. But the Russian clergy had copied the practice of the Greek clergy and it had become part of the Russian style.
Black is traditionally the color of death and mourning in the West, but in the far East white is the color of death and mourning. In Russia, red is the color of beauty, brightness and joy. None of this is written down in the rules, and different colors obviously have different meanings for different peoples. It is therefore easier to describe various customs than it is to say what are 'proper' and 'improper' colors to use. Below, we give the most common uses for colors in the Orthodox Church, especially in the Russian (Moscow) and Carpatho-Russian, Ukrainian, or 'Little Russian' tradition. Here is what the Russian Church's Nastol'naya Kniga Sviashchenno-sluzhitelia says about colors: The most important Feasts of the Orthodox Church and the sacred events for which specific colors of vestments have been established, can be united into six basic groups.
1. The group of Feasts and days commemorating Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prophets, the Apostles and the Holy Hierarchs. Vestment color: Gold (yellow) of all shades.
2. The group of Feasts and days commemorating the Most Holy Mother of God, the Bodiless Powers and Virgins. Vestment color: Light Blue and White.
3. The group of Feasts and days commemorating the Cross of Our Lord. Vestment color: Purple or Dark Red.
4. The group of Feasts and days commemorating Martyrs. Vestment color: Red. [On Great and Holy Thursday, Dark Red vestments are worn, even though the church is still covered with black and the Holy (Altar) Table is covered with a white cloth.]
5. The group of Feasts and days commemorating Monastic Saints, Ascetics and Fools for Christ. Vestment color: Green. The Entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), Holy Trinity Day (Pentecost) and Holy Spirit Day (Monday after Pentecost) are, as a rule, celebrated in Green vestments of all shades.
6. During the Lenten periods, the vestment colors are: Dark Blue, Purple, Dark Green, Dark Red and Black. This last color is used essentially for the days of Great Lent. During the first week of that Lent and on the weekdays of the following weeks, the vestment color is Black. On Sundays and Feastdays of this period, the vestments are of a dark color with Gold or colored ornaments. Funerals, as a rule, are done in White vestments. In earlier times, there were no Black vestments in the Orthodox Church, although the everyday clothing of the clergy, especially the Monastics, was Black.
In Russia, it was first proposed to the clergy of Saint Petersburg to wear Black Vestments, if possible, to participate in the Funeral of Emperor Peter II. From that time on, Black Vestments became customary for Funerals and the weekday Services of Great Lent. In Carpatho-Russian style, in the Paschal season, white, exclusively, is worn. White, the color of Resurrection, is worn at funerals and memorial services. In the Japanese Orthodox Church, white is the traditional Japanese color of mourning. In order to avoid shocking the Japanese sensibilities, the Japanese Church wears red, especially deep red, for Pascha, and gold in the other periods where white is normally worn in Russia.
As for the churches of the Greek tradition, this systematized color scheme is not known. Some Greeks begin to follow the Russian usage, but this is by no means common. The Greeks follow the typicon's prescriptions of 'light' and 'dark' irregardless of the color of vestments. They also seem to follow the pattern of wearing the best vestments for the greatest feasts.
(Taken from a longer article by Father John Udics, pastor of Assumption of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Philadelphia, PA. For more reading, see the Nastol'naya Kniga Sviashchenno-sluzhitelia, Volume 4, Moscow, 1983, Translated in "The Messenger" of St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Philadelphia, June, July-August, September, 1990)