Using color to mark times and seasons of the Church Year is nothing new to most of us. The idea of using liturgical colors seems so normal to us, that you can often find people with strong opinions about such matters, as:
As we talk about how common it is to have colors associated with the times of the Church Year, we also find that these colors have meanings that are commonly associated with them. Violet is held to be a color of repentance, which makes it fitting for the penitential seasons. Purple and royal blue are seen as regal colors and thus are an appropriate color to use in confession of Our Lord's coming as King during the Advent season. White, a color of purity (as in Isaiah 1:18 and Revelation 7:14,) has been connected to the Feast of the Holy Trinity and to the seasons and festivals that have some general relationship to Christ. Red, as the color of fire and blood, is often connected to Pentecost and the festivals of the holy martyrs.
These ideas are so common among us that I had simply come to take such things for granted. Doesn't everybody look at the colors of the Church Year this way?
One day, my bubble was burst by a reference that I found in Guenther Stiller's Johann Sebastian Bach and the Liturgical Life at Leipzig. (If you're looking for descriptions of the liturgical practices of the late period of Lutheran Orthodoxy, this book is a gem. And — it is available for $25 + shipping from cph.org.) I was completely baffled by Stiller's reports from the notes of the sexton at St. Thomas Church:
Reading through these notes, you find some liturgical colors being used in ways that are not familiar to us today. We might appreciate some of it: Black fits our understanding as a color of mourning – which would be appropriate for Lent and for Good Friday. The "bright colors" used on Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday/Easter Sunday are similar to our own use of white on those days. But – blue on Reformation Eve? (We would expect green or possibly red.) And – green on the Purification of Mary? (If observed, we would probably use white – for a festival that is connected to Christ.) And yet again, red or green for the First Sunday in Advent? What was going on?
Wait. There's more. During Bach's time in Leipzig, you would not merely have found an unfamiliar use of colors. Beyond this, you would also have noticed – that those Lutherans in Leipzig did not always feel the need to make their colors match! It says above that the "bright hangings" on Palm Sunday, which were also used on Maundy Thursday (till mid-day, when they were exchanged for black paraments,) were paired (throughout both days) with a liturgist who consistently wore "the green chasuble".
To our twenty-first century eyes and ears, these things might all seem quite unusual. So, what should we say about all of these things?
First, we have to say a word for the sake of the adiaphorists out there who are always scandalized by attention to liturgical details. We do not believe that our Lutheran churches are reconciled to God based on their choice of fabric colors. We do not claim to merit God's grace, favor, forgiveness of sins, or salvation, etc., by choosing the correct color scheme – however pleasant (or sore upon the eyes) that might be. For this, the color that matters most is the blood of Jesus, God's Son, which cleanses us from all sin.
Next, we point to the Augsburg Confession and the Apology, where we remember both our Christian liberty with regard to such churchly customs (Augsburg Confession XXVI:43-45) as well as our commitment to fostering harmony with such ancient customs "as can be observed without sin or without great inconvenience" (Apology XV:49-52). Where we might preserve the traditional liturgical forms (Apology XXIV:1), it is good for us to do so – for the sake of preserving order in the church (Augsburg Confession XXVI:40).
How is this to be applied to our use of colors in the Church Year today? For the First Sunday in Advent, should we give up both purple and blue – in exchange for the Leipzig custom of putting up red paraments and wearing green chasubles? As we consider this, we might also find it good to be guided by the wisdom of a quotation, cited approvingly in our Augsburg Confession (XXVI:45):