The black colour is normally associated with the sobriety and austerity of Lent. Priests, pastors and worship decor are draped in the ashen dark to remind us of our common mortality. The visual symbols enwrapped in black point to the crucified Christ and the path of suffering and death.
I think some of us who wear the black clerical shirts year round do so mindful of the unimaginative simplicity and seeming pedestrian quality of this colour.
In the German tradition of worship on Good Friday, special effort is made to emphasize and cover as much as possible with the colour black. In the common understanding of this practice, we have taken this to mean ‘black is mournful’. Indeed, do we not wear black at funerals? And is not Good Friday about the death of Jesus?
We therefore come to worship on Good Friday with heads hung low, faces heavy with sadness, shuffling mournfully down the aisle. An interpretation about the colour black has led to this predominantly sorrowful approach to Good Friday worship.
While I appreciate a collectively mindful appreciation of Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice, I’ve also appreciated a colleague’s clarification of the history of manufacturing black colours in clothing and art. The reason behind bringing the black colour, especially on Good Friday, stems from pre-industrial, organic processes of pigmentation.
In late medieval times, the colour black became the popular fashion choice for royalty in Europe. The most common, least expensive methods of pigmentation resulted in a brighter array of colours. But ‘vine black’ — obtained from burning the twigs of grape vines — was according to the 15th century painter Cennino Cennini “the perfect colour”.
To extract even a little bit of this perfect colour, hard, laborious work was employed. In order to yield the perfect result on a canvas or in clothing, a sacrifice of comparable worth was made. Thus, the colour black was suited for the observance of Good Friday: Not just so that worshippers would feel dour and down on Good Friday; Not only to inculcate a depressive, mournful mood on Good Friday.
Black was gold. Black indicated a valuable and, above all, worthwhile, expression of faith especially on “Good” Friday. The day’s name suggests another paradox: While black can signal temperance and penitence, it also points to a greatness beyond any human effort — the greatest, most perfect, sacrifice of love by God that yields the greatest power even over death itself.
Worth celebrating. Worth our thanksgiving.
While the Good Friday service can seem sorrowful, especially the Solemn Reproaches and Psalm 22, for years I have given the service the title “Triumph of the Cross.”