This week, the third of September, the traditional Roman calendar has us celebrate what are known as the “Ember Days”. These are essentially days of prayer and fasting, recurring four times a year (whence their Latin name of “Quattuor Temporum”), and destined to sanctify the four seasons of the year. These celebrations are among the most ancient and venerable in the liturgical calendar of the Roman church, their institution going back, most probably, beyond the early church and the apostles, to pre-Christian Jewish celebrations.
Such ancient ceremonies must hold a very deep secret. As usual, we have a privileged way of tapping into that mystery, and that is the sacred texts the Church gives us on these days. If you have an old missal, you might want to open it to roughly the 16th or 17th Sunday after Pentecost. You will find tucked in there Masses for Ember Wednesday, Ember Friday and Ember Saturday. All the Masses are incredibly rich, and contain profound lessons to nourish our prayer, devotion, and acts of penance.
I will reflect only on one point here, namely the marvellous juxtaposition of texts which invite us to bend over in repentant adoration and fasting, and at the same time, almost in the same breath, other texts that invite to rejoice, to celebrate, to feast. What can be the mystery hidden here, if not one of the more profound paradoxes of our Christian faith, namely that we are a people of joyful penance, that is to say, we acknowledge our sinfulness and need for atonement, but at the same time, we know and we have the unfailing conviction that our humble efforts, which impose a bit of self-denial upon us, are pleasing to the Lord and obtain for us renewed graces of friendship with God and brotherhood with those who share our faith.
Did not Our Lord try to get this across when He said in substance: “When you fast, do not be as the hypocrites who disfigure their faces to show people they are fasting. Rather, wash your face, perfume your head, so that you will appear not to be fasting, but rather feasting”. In that way, we can see that fasting is, in a way, feasting. It is when we learn to give up certain satisfactions out of love for God that we find true joy. Then we understand why it is that the Church begins today’s Mass with “Let the heart of those rejoice who seek the Lord”, and why last Wednesday we were told that the “joy of the Lord is our strength”. Then we will also understand why it is a pity that these holy days have been forgotten, and we will make efforts to bring them out of oblivion. They may once again be days of salvation for many.