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December 15, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — The Ember Days are among the most ancient liturgies we possess, predating even the Sundays of Advent (!), as beloved as those are. Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century already spoke of them as a firm and fixed tradition carefully kept. As Michael Foley notes in his excellent article on the subject:

The Ember days, which fall on a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the same week, occur in conjunction with the four natural seasons of the year. Autumn brings the September Embertide, also called the Michaelmas Embertide because of their proximity to the Feast of St. Michael on September 29. Winter, on the other hand, brings the December Embertide during the third week of Advent, and spring brings the Lenten Embertide after the first Sunday of Lent. Finally, summer heralds the Whitsun Embertide, which takes place within the Octave of Pentecost.

In the 1962 Missal the Ember days are ranked as ferias of the second class, weekdays of special importance that even supersede certain saints’ feasts. Each day has its own proper Mass, all of which are quite old. One proof of their antiquity is that they are one of the few days … which has as many as five lessons from the Old Testament in addition to the Epistle reading, an ancient arrangement indeed.

Fasting and partial abstinence during the Ember days were also enjoined on the faithful from time immemorial until the 1960s.

The Saturdays eventually became days of ordinations, which explains (for example) the traditional Epistle for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (1 Cor. 4:1–5), which speaks of how the “dispensers of the mysteries of God” should be found faithful.

The ancient tradition of Ember Days, like so many other traditions, was just wiped away in the 1960s, as part of the “extreme makeover” approach of a Vatican committee that suppressed or invented what they thought the world now needed. It’s completely contrary to the way the liturgy has always been treated: as an inheritance to be proudly maintained and jealously protected. How could such a thing have happened?

A purge of this magnitude arose from the belief that modern man is essentially different from his predecessors, to such an extent that what past generations possessed and made use of can no longer be assumed to be profitable to modern people. This belief, as false as the day is long, dovetailed with the mania for a system and method characteristic of modern times: with enough taxpayer dollars and enough committees, we can build a better world, or, in this case, a better worship.

There are multiple reasons for the mania, but they converge on one thing: the triumph of rational method and its (attempted) application to every domain of human life. By “rational method” I mean the sort of thing one finds in rationalist thinkers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, or Comte: the attempt to dominate reality by a self-contained logical system of axioms, theorems, and corollaries. In civil society, this becomes the attempt to create a rational “science of politics” and a system of human rights so that man’s happiness can be procured on Earth and the evils the flesh is heir to can be banished. Romanticism was a failed response to the rationalist mania, and its failure was all the heavier because it bought the premise of the mania — namely, that system and method are the only ways to be rational. In reacting against rational method, romanticism thought it had to react against rationality itself.

The groundbreaking essay “Bishops Unbound“ by Bronwen Catherine McShea exemplified how this mania invaded the Church long ago. To respond to the rise of rationally organized states, the Church adopted the same type of rational organization herself, overriding and overwriting centuries of local, organic traditions. To be fair, Protestantism had played those traditions to its advantage: get all the local canons to be heretics, and they’ll elect a heretical bishop. Some response, then, was needed. But in adopting the tactics of modernity, the Church began to drink in the view that system and method are the answer to every problem. We see that mentality extending to governing structures, seminaries, advice for confession, spiritual manuals, mass-produced artworks, you name it. The Church imitated the secular state in its absolutism, its legal codes, its proceduralism, and its regimentation. John Lamont’s analysis of the corruption of the concept of obedience (“Tyranny and Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Jesuit Tragedy”) fits into this picture as well.

So when the Church faced a crisis in the twentieth century — and there can be no doubt that a crisis had been brewing ever since the First World War, and that the same was intensified by the Second World War — the natural solution seemed to be this: call a huge meeting of all the executives, write a new set of documents and plans, and set things to rights from the top down. What is usually billed as the moment of the Spirit, the moment of throwing off the shackles of neoscholasticism, was in its very conception one huge exercise in the mania for system and method. The ensuing liturgical rationalization, systematization, and standardization at the hands of a memorandum-driven super-committee for top-down “reform” was of a piece with that.

Catholics who are steeped in the modern conception of rationality can imagine no other alternative but a nostalgic Romanticism. Some people think their way along, while others feel their way along. We can see this false alternative at work whenever people accuse educated traditionalists of “nostalgia,” which is regarded as a sort of weakness of the brain: since system and method are the only version of rationality — there’s simply no other way of being rational — it follows that being attached to place, to local tradition, to the heritage of the past, etc. is to be irrational.

Two giants of early modern philosophy, Bacon and Descartes, reject formal and final causality — the principle that answers the question what something is, and the principle that answers why it does what it does. Scientifically minded people are to look instead to material and efficient causality — the stuff something is made out of and what put it together. In a similar way, the formal cause of liturgy (tradition) and the final cause (worship of the thrice-holy God) were neglected, and the “stuff” of the liturgy was subjected to manipulation by scholarly architects and engineers, for whom it was seen as raw material ready to be endowed with a new purpose, for the betterment of the human condition. In other words, the same mechanistic and humanistic worldview is operative in the liturgical reform as in the Baconian and Cartesian revolution.

In my experience, relatively few Catholics are aware of just how the liturgy was “reformed.” (For a compact treatment, I recommend Yves Chiron’s readable account.) The entire landscape of the liturgy, from the Mass to the other sacraments, from the Divine Office to the papal ceremonies, was partitioned into 45 segments entrusted to as many subcommittees (coetus, “group” in Latin), all under the expert management of Annibale Bugnini, who reported directly to Paul VI and served as the information conduit between the subcommittees who “drew up” rites and reports and the pope who had to approve their work. Within this bureaucratic juggernaut there were nine groups for the Divine Office and seven groups for the Ordo Missae.

The various groups disassembled the existing rites into their atomic parts and then produced new building plans out of traditional, archaic, imaginary, and novel ingredients. These were reassembled at plenary meetings, as a car factory has an assembly area for the parts fashioned in separate departments. This was Bugnini’s plan from the first moment: “divide and conquer.” All he had to do was to make sure that the “right” people were put on each subcommittee, and then sit back and orchestrate the agendas and communications. The tunnel vision of so many simultaneous tracks would ensure that the most avant garde ideas would be pursued and would be given favorable hearing, while no one but Bugnini and a few others had in mind the overall goal they were seeking. He knew that the monumental changes he and the other radical reformers had in mind would never be approved all at once in a full frontal view; rather, the car factory model would ensure success.

Now it should be clearer why I have said that approaching liturgy in this mechanistic, industrialized, compartmentalized way betrays a fundamentally Baconian-Cartesian conception of reality. Bacon’s Novum Organum was the methodological template of the Novus Ordo. The Consilium’s workshop was like the laboratory of a chemist or a physicist, rather than the outdoor world of real organic beings studied by the botanist or zoologist. The liturgy was regarded and treated not as a mystery that grows with its own inner life principle, like a child in the womb of Holy Mother Church, but rather as a series of lifeless parts that have to be rigged up a certain way to get them to “function properly.” The holistic metaphysical vision of Plato and Aristotle, of Augustine and Aquinas, is absent from this atomistic reductionism and technological utilitarianism. The liturgy was treated like a deluxe set of LEGO bricks or a DIY project instead of a wondrous seed imparted by the Lord, planted by the apostles, tended by the Church Fathers, and maintained by centuries of gardeners.

Although the liturgy was affected by the soil, water, and climate in which it lived, those who received it and cared for it had always respected its givenness, its “otherness” from us and from any age through which it passed. Such must still be our attitude today toward the great tradition. By a kind of miracle, this tradition survived alongside its attempted modern replacement, and as the years go on, we can see it thriving once again.

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Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California (B.A. Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy). He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria and the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, then helped establish Wyoming Catholic College in 2006. There he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history and directed the choirs until leaving in 2018 to devote himself full-time to writing and lecturing.

Today he contributes regularly to many websites and publications, including New Liturgical Movement, OnePeterFive, LifeSiteNews, Rorate Caeli, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News, and has published thirteen books, including four on traditional Catholicism: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014, also available in Czech, Polish, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Belarusian), Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017), Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018), and Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over a thousand articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church.

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, visit his personal website,