Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ember Wednesday

In the pre-1970 liturgical calendar, today would have been the Ember Wednesday of September. There were in fact four sets of Ember Days - the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the 1st Sunday of Lent, Pentecost, and September 14 - roughly corresponding to the four seasons. Before fast and abstinence were deemed incompatible with the spirit of the age, the Ember Days were all days of "fast and partial abstinence." Growing up, I was, of course, still too young to have to fast, but the Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays - identified on the calendar with a half-fish - did impact even us youngsters with the limitation of meat to only the principal meal. The Daily Missal I used in the early 1960s described the Ember Days as days of "repentance for sins, spiritual renewal, and a special preparation for solemn ordinations."
All that is now long gone, of course, as is the connection between the liturgical cycle and the annual rhythm of the natural seasons. Yet, as it happens, the weather today seems suddenly to have grown milder - a mere hint, but a real hint nonetheless, of autumn's answer to the killing heat and garish sun of summer.
Not only that, but tonight begins the great Jewish autumn harvest festival of Sukkot - commonly called the Feast of the Tabernacles in the gospels. Whereas the Advent and Lenten Ember Days were more or less subsumed into the overarching themes of those seasons, the Pentecost and September Ember Days explicitly connected with the corresponding Jewish seasonal festivals. Our Christian Pentecost corresponds, after all, to the Jewish Pentecost, Shavuot. So it made sense that two of the four "prophecies" at Mass on the Ember Saturday after Pentecost referred to that festival. Likewise, the old second reading for the Ember Wednesday of September was Ezra's account of the reading of the law on Rosh Hashanah, while the first two "prophecies" on September's Ember Saturday was from Leviticus - the first regarding Yom Kippur, the second concerning Sukkot.
We lost many things when we foolishly discarded Ember Days - not just fast and abstinence, but also a liturgical acknowledgment of the changing seasons and a reminder of our spiritual unique relationship with Judaism - all things we could use more of in our life and worship.

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