The Catholic Church, from the very beginning of her divinely appointed mission, has ever inculcated upon her children the utility, the necessity and the duty of fasting, as a means of doing penance and subduing the flesh to the spirit. We will consider here the reasons for the four special seasons of fasting and prayer which the Church prescribes during the year, and which we know by the name of Ember Days. This name, once erroneously connected with a kind of cake baked upon hot ashes or embers, is derived with more probability from the Latin term “Quatuor Tempora,” or the “four times” of fasting, of which term “Ember” is a corruption. In some old writers the Ember Days are spoken of as the “Three Times”; but this is easily understood by the fact that the great Lenten fast somewhat overshadows the Ember Days which occur at that season of the year.
The history of the Ember Days can be traced very far back in the life of the Church. There is little doubt, indeed, that we have in them an instance of a heathen custom taken over by the Church and Christianized, with that practical wisdom for which she is justly admired, and which knows how to take the elements of good that are to be found in man’s natural instincts, and to purify them and elevate them to that supernatural order with which she is the medium of communication for men.
The original deities of the Roman people were all connected with agriculture, upon which art men depend for their daily bread. Hence it was the custom in ancient Rome to hold religious services in honor of these gods in June, September and December, and to invoke their protection upon the fruits of the earth. This idea in itself was entirely right and good, though its expression was directed to false deities. By the establishment of the Ember Days the Church recalled men to the right path and taught them to acknowledge the one true God, the Giver of all good; and, particularly, at these four seasons to thank Him for the gifts of nature or to invoke the divine blessing upon the crops; to use God's gifts also in moderation, and by the almsgiving, which the Church has always associated with fasting and prayer, to assist their needy brethren.
We can see, moreover, in the days of the week set apart for the Ember fast, a most interesting survival of the weekly religious observances which obtained in the early Church. From the homilies of St. Leo the Great we know that it was customary to fast and to hold meetings for special prayer every Wednesday and Friday. Further, in accordance with the primitive custom by which the solemn celebration of Holy Mass on festival days was preceded by a vigil of prayer and fasting, we find the Saturday also dedicated to this pious practice in preparation for the festal celebration of the Christian Sabbath, the first day of the week, known as the “Lord's Day.” Hence it is that the Ember Days fall on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Thus, from the earliest times the Church exhibited the salutary tendency to set apart not only the Sunday, but other days for special acts of worship and devotion, teaching us thereby that our religion should be part of our daily lives, and not put off and on with our Sunday clothes; that, in a word, man owes his whole life and every moment of his time to the service of his Creator.
It is not unlikely that the Jewish practice mentioned in the following text also had its influence upon the Church in the establishment of the Ember Days. “Thus, saith the Lord of Hosts: the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Juda joy and gladness and great solemnities” (Zach. viii, 19).
Enough has been said concerning the history of the Ember Days to show you that we have in them a religious observance of which the origin is to be found in those primitive times when the tones of the Master's voice still resounded as not far off, when it was remembered how He had said, “The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them: and then they shall fast in those days” (St. Mark ii, 2O). The Church, in fact, began her life with a sacred deposit of divine unalterable truth given into her infallible keeping by Jesus Christ and His Apostles.
Almost naturally, we may say, and inevitably, yet also under the supernatural guidance of God's Holy Spirit in the Church, this body of truth, this deposit of divinely revealed teaching, found its expression in various outward acts of devotion. These at first, without doubt, varied in different places, yet all expressed the same truth: it took time, moreover, for the Church to develop her full liturgical and devotional life. At first this development was difficult in face of the relentless persecution that she had to endure, but when peace came at last the work went rapidly forward, and in due time, while still leaving great devotional freedom to the faithful in various times and places, the supreme authority stepped in and imposed certain uniform practices and liturgical rites upon the whole Church. The Ember Days are among these; but the point that I would have you notice is that, although the universal obligation of such observances in some cases did not come till a comparatively late date, the Ember Days themselves, for instance, having been definitely arranged and prescribed for the whole Church by Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh century, yet they have their roots in the far remote past, and in the practices of primitive times, and are the result of a legitimate development of the truth which Jesus Christ and His Holy Apostles taught in the beginning.
We must consider now the special intentions of the Church in the institution of the Ember Days. They are intended to consecrate to God the four seasons of the year; to implore the Divine blessing upon the fruits of the earth and thank almighty God for their safe harvesting.
After all, although the complicated conditions of modern life may easily make those forget it who are not employed in the actual cultivation of the soil, it is upon the fruits of the earth that all mankind, civilized or uncivilized, ultimately depend for existence. We forget very easily that the staple food which we find upon our tables every day is there because God has given sun and rain in due season. One of the most obvious ways of acknowledging our dependence upon God for these gifts consists in a due moderation and restriction in their use. I say “obvious,” for this mode of acknowledgment naturally suggests itself to the human mind where men have not been sophisticated by the luxuries of modern “civilized” life: among savage races exists this idea of the recognition of God as the Giver of all good things by abstinence from this one or that one of His gifts.
And is it not common-sense to say that an unlimited and greedy indulgence in luxuries of various kinds implies of itself a spirit of independence and of forgetfulness of the fact that we depend upon God as truly as do the birds of the air and the beasts of the field? It follows, then, that a willing moderation is not only a salutary self-denial, but also an acknowledgment of gratitude due to the Father who provides for our necessities—nay, who showers His gifts upon us in so great abundance?
By giving to the poor what we save by self-denial, we carry out more completely the intentions of the Church in appointing the Ember seasons; for not only is this an act of charity most pleasing to God, but it is also a recognition of that common bond of dependence upon Him which, in fact, unites the whole human race in a solidarity of need as children of one heavenly Father to whom we owe all that we have or are. Thus, speaking in a Homily at the Advent Ember season, St. Leo says: “Fasting has ever been the nourishment of virtue. Abstinence is the source of chaste thoughts, of salutary counsel. By voluntary mortifications the flesh dies to its concupiscence and the spirit is renewed in virtue. But, since fasting alone is not sufficient whereby to secure the soul's salvation, let us add to it works of mercy towards the poor. Let us make that which we retrench from indulgence serve unto the exercise of virtue. Let the abstinence of him that fasts become the meal of the poor man.”
From very early times the Saturday in the Ember weeks has been set apart by the Church for the ordination of her clergy. The reason is easy to see. The spiritual good of the whole Church, and the salvation of the faithful depend, under God's Providence, to a very great extent upon the zeal and personal holiness of the ministers of the sanctuary. What more urgent object of prayer and fasting, then, than to obtain a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon those who, at the Ember seasons, are about to be consecrated to the solemn and responsible duties of the sacred ministry? Here, therefore, we have another intention of the Church in calling upon her children to set apart these days for fasting and special prayer.
Truly, then, when we consider their venerable origin, their practical embodiment of the great truth of the efficacy and necessity of prayer and self-denial, their salutary influence upon the Christian life, and the blessings that their due observance will most certainly draw down upon the Church, is it not a matter of self-reproach, my dear brethren, that we take so little notice of the Ember Days and of other similar observances which played so great a part in the lives of our forefathers in the faith?
Should we not hold it to be a sacred duty and a high privilege to forward, each in his own sphere, by word and by example, that happy revival of the devotional and liturgical life of the Church which is to be witnessed today? It is no slight thing to pass over unnoticed a holy institution like that of the Ember Days; for to these things are attached very special graces and blessings which the Church calls down at such times upon her faithful children. We can scarcely expect those blessings if we dissociate ourselves by our forgetfulness or indifference from those Catholic ordinances which are their ordinary vehicle. There is a sacred virtue in those ordinances; for they are, as it were, the official acts, and the official pleadings of the Church as appointed intermediary between God and man; exercising her mediation through that priesthood which is on earth the continuation of and participation in the Eternal Priesthood of Jesus Christ Himself, who, indeed, carries on through Church and priest, who are in intimate union and co-operation with Him, His own mediatorial office. And has not St. John told us in the Apocalypse that we are all—in our corporate capacity, that is, as members of the Church-” a kingdom and priests to God?” It is, then, both a duty and a privilege, a duty not to be neglected, and a privilege not to be despised, to unite ourselves with the Church in those special rites and ceremonies which she has instituted for our common observance as members of Christ's mystical Body.
Lastly, we must always remember that the outward expressions of piety, of repentance and devotion, these bodily fasts and mortifications, are but a means to an end: that they are meant to aid us in that continual fast and abstinence from all sinful pleasures which is the daily obligation of every Christian and is not to be confined to any special times or seasons. The interior spirit, then, in which we should follow the Church in these holy observances, the spirit without which they would be vain and useless indeed, is summed up admirably in one of the prayers in the Mass for the Ember Saturday during the season of Pentecost: “Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that, being taught by these salutary fasts, and abstaining likewise from all vices, we may the more easily obtain thy mercy—through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”