Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Autumn Ember Week and Praying for our Planet Australian-Style

If we still celebrated the Ember Days, this would be Autumn Ember Week. When the pre-conciliar Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy was laying the groundwork for Sacrosanctum Concilium, there was some consideration of suppressing or transferring the Rogation Days, but to the best of my knowledge absolutely no one was suggesting sending the Ember Days to the guillotine! In fact, at meetings in March and April 1952, the emerging consensus seemed to favor transferring the Rogation Day Litany from April 25 to one of the Ember Fridays or Saturdays, which obviously implied their likely survival. (Of course, no one could then foresee - as even Vatican II itself could not foresee - the widespread collapse into craziness that would characterize the second half of the 1960s.)

Like so many others, I have long lamented the gratuitous loss of the ancient seasonal Ember Days - days simultaneously so deeply expressive of our Latin liturgical tradition and so appropriately relevant to our contemporary concern for the care of creation. Now that they have been lost, we will likely never recover them, but we can still recall and appreciate their spiritual significance, their simultaneously traditional and contemporary message at the beginning of another autumn season.

The autumn Ember Days were traditionally observed on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after September 14, which this year would be today (September 21), September 23, and September 24.  As with all four sets of seasonal Ember Days, the Roman stational church for Ember Wednesday was Saint Mary Major, that for Ember Friday was the Holy Apostles, and that for the lengthy liturgy of Ember Saturday was Saint Peter's.

I actually remember being quite conscious of what turned out to be among the last Ember Days to be observed. It was 49 years ago, on September 22, 1967, and I was attending my grandmother's funeral - still happily celebrated in black with the traditional Subvenite at the beginning and Absolution at the end. But, as my teenaged attention wandered during the Mass, my eyes focused on the side altars where other priests were celebrating their individual Masses for the occurring Ember Friday - all in violet vestments.

Interestingly, in 2008, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference decided to recreate two "Ember Days" - one on the first Friday in March, the other on the first Friday of September. Not unlike the ancient Ember Days, the post-modern Australian autumn and spring "Ember Fridays" are intended as days to petition for favorable weather and fruitful harvest. According to the Diocese of Brisbane, the aim of these days is to connect those traditional petitions "with our responsibility to care for the earth as stewards of the world's resources" and "with a conversion of heart in relation to our care of the earth." Fasting and Abstinence - traditional Ember Day practices - are recommended "to encourage restraint in our exploitation of natural resources" and "solidarity with those who are disadvantaged, especially those who suffer through famine and the inequitable distribution of the world's goods."

Ember Days were traditionally also associated with ordinations. How much more fitting and expressive of the true spirit of sacred orders would it be to reconnect those celebrations with a penitential conversion of heart and with a renewed focus on the multiple challenges the Church and the Church's ministers face in teaching and - witnessing to - the care of our common home!

In our poisonously polarized political atmosphere, where some may feel afraid to speak out for either conversion of heart or the care of our common home, having some sort of restored Ember Days to observe might offer at least a hint of an alternative to the ceaseless celebration of secular consumerism and the exploitation of our increasingly fragile planet.

In that regard, it would be well worth recalling how the Book of Daniel's account of the "Three Young Men," who were cast into Babylon's fiery furnace for standing up to the pagan king, was regularly read as the fifth prophecy on each of the year's Ember Saturdays - not a bad antidote to our debilitating fear of confronting that same secular consumerism and exploitation.

No comments:

Post a Comment