(LifeSiteNews) — It’s a special week in the Christian calendar. This week, we have the opportunity to observe an ancient Roman practice that goes back to the Apostles themselves — and we can offer God something special, in a united, communal way.
In the traditional Roman calendar, this week, the third week of Advent, is an “Ember Week,” and Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday are traditionally days called “the Ember Days.”
But they’re nothing to do with embers or fires — it comes from the Latin “Quatuor Tempora” — tempora, ember. It means the “Four Times,” or we could see it as the “Four Seasons.” There are four of these Ember Weeks — one in Advent for Winter, Lent for Spring, the Pentecost Octave for Summer, and one in September for Autumn.
But what are they all about?
Well, they’re days of fast and abstinence, and they used to be obligatory in the whole Latin Church. They have a very particular purpose.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that, in general, “fasting is directed to two things: the deletion of sin, and the raising of the mind to heavenly things.” Fasting is for our own good! And for this reason, he says, we need to have periods of fasting at the times most appropriate to penance, and to raising our minds to God.
Makes sense, right? But how can we do this with only two fasting days a year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday?
Well, until 1966, the whole Catholic world had many more obligatory fasting days. They came in three distinct “types.”
The whole of Lent was a time of fasting — that’s because Lent is the supreme time of penance, and preparation for Easter, the feast of feasts.
The “vigils,” the days before certain major feasts, were also days of fast, preparing us to celebrate, and raising our minds to God.
But the last group are these four sets of Ember Days, which divide the year into quarters.
These Ember Days go very far back indeed. They’re traditionally linked with the stages of the agricultural cycle. The ancient Romans had religious ceremonies based around their agriculture — they had June rites for a good harvest, Autumn’s were for a good wine vintage, and December’s were for seeding.
We all know that the Church tries, where possible, to sanctify the traditions of those she converts — and what could be more fitting for this than this Roman tradition? By this cycle of fasts, the Church has us thank God for the gifts of nature, she teaches us to use them moderately — and she has us reflect on the season that has just passed, and the one that is now to come.
In fact, St. Leo the Great and several other ancient writers believe that these Ember Days go back to the apostles themselves. Given that they are so quintessentially Roman, perhaps they specifically come from St. Peter.
But so few of us are involved in agriculture today, what relevance do they have for us?
Redeeming Time — Quarterly Review
Paul wrote to the Ephesians about “redeeming the time.” He writes:
See to it therefore, brethren, that you walk with care: not as unwise, but as wise: redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
Therefore do not become foolish, but understand what is the will of God. And be not drunk with wine, for in that is debauchery: but be ye filled with the Holy Spirit. (Eph 5.14-18)
Powerful words for us today, both in the run-up to Christmas, with all the parties and excess — and also in this terrible crisis in the world.
“Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” How can we “redeem the time”?
St. Thomas tells us to see each of the three Ember Days (Wednesday, Friday, Saturday) as relating to the three months in each season. Many businesses have a quarterly review, where they look back over how things have gone — and look forward, forecasting for the next quarter.
We could see the Ember Days like this. We, too, can do our quarterly review, this time examining our spiritual progress in October, November and December; we could offer each one of the Ember days as penance for the sins of each month; or we could gratefully call to mind the graces and good things God has done for us in each of those months.
An Ember Week “quarterly review” is an opportunity for us to look back over the last season, and ask ourselves:
In what ways have these last three months been entirely God’s?
In what things did I seek God sincerely, and in what did I seek myself?
Or perhaps we could pray for the graces for January, February, and March (when the next Ember Week falls). God alone knows what the coming months hold for us and for the world: It would be wise for us to do penance and ask for what we need to persevere in the time ahead. And the saints and fathers of the Church often tell us that we cannot overcome serious struggles without serious prayer and fasting.
Fasting and the current crisis
This is because, in the words of St. Augustine:
Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.
This is our main duty, to cure ourselves (with God’s grace) from the afflictions of sin.
But there are other things that need cures too — not least the evils afflicting our society.
In the Gospels, a man fell at Jesus’ feet and begged for help. “Lord, have pity on my son!” he said. His son was a lunatic, and afflicted by an evil spirit that tried to make him destroy himself. “I brought him to thy disciples,” he said. “And they could not cure him.”
Now, the Lord cured his son with a word, and afterwards his disciples asked him why they weren’t able to help him. Jesus’s reply is very interesting.
“Because of your unbelief,” he said. “If you have faith, nothing shall be impossible to you.” But he added that “this kind [of demon] is not cast out but by prayer and fasting.”
What is going on in our world today? As we know, it appears as if dark, demonic forces are driving our world to destroy itself, like the boy in the Gospel, be it through abortion, euthanasia, blasphemy, heresy, or the Satanic tyranny of the “Great Reset” revolution.
Those purporting to be our shepherds — those who relaxed the fasting of the Church! — they, like the apostles in the Gospel, seem unable to help us. Could Our Lord not also condemn their unbelief, as well?
And like the boy’s father in the Gospel, perhaps we can hear Our Lord saying to us: “If thou canst believe, all things are possible” — and perhaps we are tempted to cry out with that poor father, “I do believe Lord! Help my unbelief!”
How closely this event in the Gospel matches our time.
So, is it not worth picking up the tools that Christ commended to us — prayer and fasting — as means to overcome these difficulties? Perhaps then Christ will have pity, and will rebuke these demons, and like that boy, the world will fall down as if dead.
But what did Jesus then do? “Taking him by the hand, he lifted him up. And he arose.”
We must all pray and fast! Yes, in all things common sense and moderation, but what better start could we make than by observing the practices that our grandparents observed not so long ago, and conforming ourselves to the traditional rhythm of the Church’s fast?
In fact, these are not some bygone practice. Even today, the Ordinariate has these days in its calendar.
But you know, much longer ago, Advent was a time of greater penance — and seeing as the penitential preparation for Christmas is now so mild, we could be even more fervent in observing the fast of these Ember Days.
So for Christmas, for the next three months, and for whatever it is that lies ahead: Let’s prepare for these things by observing these three fast days, on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
There is special a value in doing things together, especially when they are according to the practice of the Church.
“Although we may be able to do but little,” said St. Francis de Sales, “the enemy nevertheless stands in awe of those whom he knows can fast.”
It is also available in audio format on platforms such as Spotify, Soundcloud, and Acast. We are awaiting approval for iTunes and Google Play as well. To subscribe to the audio version on various channels, visit the Acast webpage here.
We’ve created a special email list for the show so that we can notify you every week when we post a new episode. Please sign up now by clicking here. You can also subscribe to the YouTube channel, and you’ll be notified by YouTube when there is new content.
You can send me feedback, or ideas for show topics by emailing [email protected].