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Diving into the Catholic Treasury: A Revival of the Ember Days

Editor’s note: This sermon was preached by Canon Aaron Huberfeld, ICRSS, at St. Mary’s Oratory in Wausau, Wisconsin, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2018.

Remember not, O Lord, our transgressions, nor those of our fathers, and take not vengeance upon our sins.

Taken from the book of Tobit (3:3), this verse is the antiphon that frames the psalms that any priest or bishop recites in preparation for Holy Mass. This same antiphon is sung at the beginning and end of the Seven Penitential Psalms, which are joined to the Litany of the Saints to form one of the Church’s most solemn and powerful prayers of penance. But today we are reminded of its original place in the liturgy. It is the Magnificat antiphon of First Vespers of the Sunday that begins Ember Week.

When I first began to attend the traditional Latin liturgy years ago, I noticed the Ember Days on a liturgical calendar, marked with a fish. I assumed that “ember” must somehow be associated with “ash,” as these were penitential days like Ash Wednesday, and I wondered what sort of ceremony might be prescribed. As many of you know, the word “ember” here is merely an English corruption of the Latin phrase quatuor tempora – four times or seasons – applied to these three days – Wednesday, Friday ,and Saturday – because they are observed at four different times throughout the Church year. Historians often suppose that the Ember Days were an effort by the Church to Christianize a similar practice among the pagan Romans. But there can be no doubt that the mind of the Church claims for them an even greater antiquity. In the Old Testament, the prophet Zacharias (8:19) speaks of a fast observed by the Hebrews during four different months of the year: the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth. The Old Law is fulfilled in the New as the Roman Rite keeps this fast in Lent, during Whitsun Week, in September, and in December. Several Church fathers attest that this was the practice since the time of the apostles.

The Ember Days were instituted to sanctify the four seasons – to beg God to bless the earth and to give thanks for a fruitful harvest. But this prayer intention has, from the earliest centuries, been overshadowed by another. These three days of penance culminate on Ember Saturday with the conferring of all minor and major orders. This is how the entire Church would prepare before proceeding with that most fearful act of raising new men to the service of her altars.

The Ember Days were abolished in the liturgical reform of 1970. Yet the most holy and ancient Roman liturgy continues to breathe with that Divine Spirit that first brought it into being. And so in our country at this moment, we find several diocesan bishops calling upon all the members of their flock to return this week to the practice of fasting and abstinence on the Ember Days, for the sanctification of the clergy and in reparation for their sins.

How often do we forget that penance is the opposite of sin, and thus the most powerful remedy for sin? Sin is defined as a turning away from God and a turning toward created things. It replaces the love of God in our heart with the love of things that can never fill it. Penance is a turning away from created things toward God. We give up delicious food and drink, worldly music and entertainment, needless talking – in order to be reminded that God alone can fill our heart, that the things of this world are here only to help us get to Heaven, and that even people are to be loved for God’s sake.

Countless saints have written with inspired eloquence on the virtue of penance. Let us recall at least some words of our holy patrons in the Institute of Christ the King. St. Francis de Sales declares: “In order that Christ’s Redemption may be applied to us, we must do penance. We must not deceive ourselves, for our forefathers have all passed by that way; young and old, small and great; in short, all have washed their feet and their hands in the waters of penance.”

And St. Benedict, in the opening of his immortal rule: “And the Lord, seeking his laborer in the multitude to whom He thus cries out, says again, ‘Who is the one who will have life, and desires to see good days?’ (Ps. 33:13). And if, hearing Him, you answer, ‘I am the one,’ God says to you, ‘If you will have true and everlasting life, keep your tongue from evil and your lips that they speak no guile. Turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it (Ps. 33:14-15). And when you have done these things, My eyes shall be upon you and My ears open to your prayers; and before you call upon Me, I will say to you, “Behold, here I am”’ (Ps. 33:16; Is. 65:24; 58:9). What can be sweeter to us, dear ones, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life.”

And St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa: “Penance is a special virtue not merely because it sorrows for evil done (since charity would suffice for that), but also because the penitent grieves for the sin he has committed, inasmuch as it is an offense against God, and purposes to amend. Now amendment for an offense committed against anyone is not made by merely ceasing to offend, but it is necessary to make some kind of compensation, which obtains in offenses committed against another, just as retribution does, only that compensation is on the part of the offender, as when he makes satisfaction, whereas retribution is on the part of the person offended against. Each of these belongs to the matter of justice, because each is a kind of commutation. Wherefore it is evident that penance, as a virtue, is a part of the virtue of justice.”

Perhaps you think: I come to the Sacraments, I already pray, I am spiritually well. In our hearts, perhaps we do not want to be told at this moment that we must do penance for the grievous sins of others. We want to be scandalized and say to ourselves, at least those sins are not mine. Well, Our Lord says He came to heal the sick. What better thing can His faithful disciples do than to unite themselves to our Savior’s work of healing by praying for those who do not pray, and doing penance for those, including clergy, who are not doing penance?

The prayer of this Sunday’s Mass is: Grant Thy people, we beseech Thee, O Lord, to avoid the contagion of the devil. As Our Lord will teach us this week, This type of devil cannot come not out except by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:28). Let us, then, heed the Church’s gentle invitation to prayer and fasting, making our own the prayer she proposes to us today:

Remember not, O Lord, our transgressions, nor those of our fathers, and take not vengeance upon our sins.

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