Today's feast of the Holy Cross is a reminder that throughout almost all of the Church's history - that is, from the 4th century or earlier until 1969 - the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of next week would have been observed in the Roman Rite as Ember Days. The four sets of those annual fast days corresponded, symbolically at least, to the beginning of each of the four seasons, and early on also acquired a connection with ordinations. It serves no purpose to repeat how they were abolished, except to recall that the pre-conciliar Papal Commission for the Reform of the Liturgy (commonly called the "Pian Commission") never envisaged such a development. According to the Minutes of the Commission's February 5, 1952, meeting, All were agreed that the Ember Days should be upgraded and that their celebration should be really observed. And we can be reasonably certain that none of the Council Fathers who voted for Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963 foresaw such a development.
In any case, the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (45-47) clearly envisage their continuance (although not that of the ancient Ember Day Masses) at least in some form, and the Episcopal Conferences are directed to "arrange the time and manner in which they are held." So there is nothing right now to stop the USCCB, for example, from restoring all 12 Ember Days or even just some of them. If in fact the original Ember Days were the penitential part of Church's response to the challenges for human survival posed by our dependence on the natural environment and to the need for ecclesial survival by providing the Church with sufficient and suitable clergy, then they would seem to be an obvious ancient resource crying out to be retrieved in response to our comparable contemporary concerns. The fact that fasting for religious reasons has become completely counter-cultural actually argues strongly in its favor. The recent restoration of Friday abstinence in England and Wales suggests that it is not hopelessly impossible to try to do it.
Besides being days of fasting, the traditional Ember Days were part of a precious liturgical patrimony well worth recovering. The Roman Station for each Ember Wednesday was always Saint Mary Major, and the Mass had three readings - 2 Old Testament "Lessons" before the Gospel. The Station for Ember Friday was always the Church of the Holy Apostles. That for Ember Saturday was Saint Peter's, and the Mass had seven readings - 5 Old Testament "Lessons" (the fifth always from Daniel's account of the three young men in the fiery Furnace) and a New Testament Epistle before the Gospel. Originally a long Saturday-night-to-Sunday-morning vigil, the Ember Saturday Mass also became the preferred occasion for ordinations - a suitably sober occasion for so significant a sacramental celebration.
My last recollection of an Ember Day liturgy goes back 51 years now to the day of my grandmother's funeral. By then – September 1967 – the Mass was almost entirely in English. Only the Canon was still recited silently and in Latin, and even that was to change by the end of that year. Other than language, however, it was still essentially the same old Funeral Mass . The celebrant still wore black and chanted the traditional “Absolution” prayers over the body at the end. While all that was going on at the main altar, however, my attention was distracted by the side altars, which were all still being used by priests celebrating their private Masses in penitential purple for the Ember Friday in September.
It is a foolish fallacy to think that one can recover the cultural ambience of that long-lost world which made such practices seem so sensible. And it would be at best a wasteful exercise in romanticism - and at worse a distraction from more pressing present problems - to make that a disproportionate priority. But there were real reasons - solid, sound, human and religious reasons - why people prayed and fasted as they on those 12 days each year century after century. For the most part, those reasons remain relevant today. Perhaps it is time to reconsider an ancient remedy and rediscover what aspects of it can still serve us in today's time of intense need.