When we say someone is “seeing red” it’s usually not a good thing. In the Church, however, seeing the color red is actually a wonderful thing!
Colors, in our biblical-ecclesial worldview, have a spiritual significance that can add incredible depth and richness to our spiritual lives.
We like to save our physical environments from the curse of the bland by adding a few well-placed splashes of color. In the same way spiritual colors can endow our inner lives with a sense of beauty and wonder. They can also teach us some firm truths by which to model our lives.
Let’s delve into the multiple meanings of the beautiful color red.
We can start with something fundamental about red: it is one of the three primary colors (along with blue and yellow). This means it is pure, not made up of any color other than itself. It can, however, add shading and richness to every other color of the spectrum. That makes it a powerful mode of human and artistic expression, even before considering its spiritual meaning.
The symbol in the natural world that has the most direct spiritual reference to the color red is blood. In fact, this understanding of red in the Judeo-Christian tradition has deep roots. The Hebrew words for “man” and “red” and “blood” (“adam” and “adom” and “dam” respectively) all obviously evolved from a single root word. So, what we’re talking about is presumed in the very language of the Old Testament.
The other symbolic association of the color red is with fire, which should be obvious to all. The red character of blood and fire, as well as numerous other of their physical properties, mirror spiritual realities quite amazingly.
Red symbolizes the vitality of the animal world (green does so for the plant world). Blood issues from the body in bright crimson hues and carries our very physical life in its flow. So its redness has a sort of “sacramental” character. It contains the very vitality and energy it symbolizes.
Imagine if God had made the blood of the body blue or green or yellow. That would be horrible! Those colors could never communicate the vital nature of blood. Blood simply has to be crimson to spiritually signify animal vitality and life.
Fire is also essentially red, though it is rarely pure red like blood. It can be mixed with flames of yellow or orange, even blue, purple, and white, depending on the substance it burns. Fire is dynamic and free, giving off certain hues based on its fuel source.
The red of fire, too, is a potent symbol. It communicates, in a striking way, a capacity for destruction as well as the power of purification and a freedom that can be harnessed for some productive good.
Red does not evoke emotions in angels, who are intellectual beings, but it certainly does in humans. The emotional dimension of the color red though, has both a positive and a negative sense.
Any gush of blood shocks and horrifies us when it flows out or is shed unexpectedly. It serves as an immediate warning that life and limb are in danger.
At the same time, red happens to be one of the most pleasing colors in the light spectrum. It is effusively used to communicate both love and affection. If you doubt me, just walk down any aisle of Valentine’s Day cards – you’ll be awash in red! A heart symbol in any other color than red is an anomaly, of course.
Fire’s red also has an emotional content. It serves as an alarm because it signals the presence of an uncontrollable power. And this power could potentially devastate everything in its wake if it isn’t immediately contained.
Yet, fire also serves our needs in many ways. It heats our homes, cooks our food, and forges metal and glass in our technological advances. And there is hardly anything more pleasing to the human spirit than the dancing, flickering flames of a warm hearth.
We can also draw certain analogies to the physical properties of blood and fire.
For example, blood flows. It is, chemically, a liquid, not a solid or a gas. For that reason it must always be contained in a vessel (a physical body) for it to be channeled in a life-giving way. When it is not contained, it is shed or poured out from that vessel and wasted.
Fire consumes and grows stronger as it consumes. It doesn’t exist independently of what it burns, but devours and moves over it. When it has enough oxygen and material to burn it consumes the material rapidly. It “burns out” when its supply of combustible material and air are gone.
This last point demonstrates the limits of the analogy of blood and fire with the spiritual world. Blood and fire are material realities that can be spent, but their spiritual analogues are inexhaustible. Nowhere is that clearer than in the Church’s liturgy and life of sanctity.
The Spiritual Messaging of Red
Translated into spiritual terms, blood and fire are direct symbols for martyrdom and spirit. Our Church reserves liturgical red for feasts of the Holy Spirit, evangelists, and martyrs. In a special way, it is also used for the two services of Holy Week – Palm Sunday and Good Friday. On these two days the Passion narrative tells us of Christ’s own Precious Blood poured out for our sins.
Given all the properties of blood and fire, it’s not hard to see how their red color manifests deep spiritual significance.
The Holy Spirit (fire, air, freedom, life)
The Holy Spirit entered the redeemed world on the Day of Pentecost as a fiery presence that can never be extinguished. The Third Person of the Blessed Trinity is fire – think of that!
And, as fire is draws on oxygen for its vitality, the Holy Spirit’s tongues of fire arrived on Pentecost preceded by a “strong, driving wind” (Acts 2:2). The Spirit, like fire and wind, is ultimately free and uncontrollable by any human force. “The spirit blows where it wills” (John 3:8), says the evangelist.
At the same time, we may “contain” the fire of the Spirit metaphorically. We call down the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit and He bestows them on those who ask (Luke 11:13; Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 12-13).
The Spirit’s association with blood’s life-giving power is equally clear: “It is the spirit that gives life” (John 6:63).
The holy Evangelists (inspiration)
Consider, too, that for feast days of the writers of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Church’s liturgical color is also red. This is because the Evangelists are strictly identified with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as they composed the New Testament.
In Christian iconography, the Evangelists are often depicted with a dove hovering over their shoulders, whispering the divine message in their ears. Their voice and influence as Evangelists “has gone out to all the earth” (Psalm 19:4). This is a mission that is indicative of the universal character of the Spirit’s guidance of the Church.
The holy Martyrs (blood poured out, zeal)
One institution of sanctity in the Church, however, bears a very obvious connection to the color red. Red is especially connected to those who have shed their blood in imitation of Christ’s own martyrdom.
If a spiritual value can be assigned to the act of pouring out one’s blood for Christ, it is the virtue of zeal. Such zeal is described in scripture as a consuming fire: “Zeal for your house consumes me” (Psalm 69:9, John 2:17).
For the holy martyrs then, red signifies blood poured out, zeal for souls, and the fire of the Spirit that motivates them to give all for Christ!
Time to be More Intentional
Our natural lives are enriched in every way by color, but so are our spiritual lives. As we grow in spirit, we should become more sensitive to the way Christian iconography extends the blessing of color to the spiritual world.
Why not become more intentional with the color red this year? You can incorporate more spiritual red into your life by doing so in the same way the Church assigns to this rich liturgical and spiritual color.
With the evangelists, read scripture more intentionally and consistently – every day. With the martyrs, practice penances and offer sacrifices more deliberately, yet modestly. And put zeal for souls on the top of your personal agenda in relationships.
Above all, pray constantly for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all things. His color is red. Fittingly. In our Creed we call Him the Lord and Giver of Life.
[This article was originally published on Catholic Stand.]