Nestled between the feast of the virgin-martyr Saint Lucy and the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Church sets aside three days for a particularly acute preparation for the coming feast of the Lord’s nativity. These Ember Days, known in Latin as the Quatuor Tempora, are found (as that name suggests) at four times of the year, fixed not to the liturgical cycle but the seasons. By these Almighty God, whom we recall in this season of Advent as Alpha es et O, the Lord of all things, sanctifies mankind as by his incarnation: blessing with his divine and supernatural presence the human and natural realm in which we live.
The Ember Days have been marked since ancient times by fasting and abstinence. In the prophecy of Zachariah we read of the fasts of the People of Israel, observed in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months (Zach. 8: 19). The winter Ember Days, falling as they do in our month of December, correspond to the Jewish fast of the tenth month, of Tevet, commemorating the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple of Solomon. Thus the Ember Days have a character of penance marked by the devastation of God’s chosen people, yet they are also tinged with the hope that is itself a trait of the Advent season; a hope that knows, as the Introit reminded us, “The Lord is now nigh” (Ps. 118: 151).
Pope Saint Leo the Great speaks of these four annual Ember fasts in his sermon for this day: “We keep the spring fast in Lent, the summer fast at Whitsuntide, the autumn fast in the seventh month, and the winter fast in this which is the tenth month, knowing that there is nothing unconnected with the divine commands, and that all the elements serve the Word of God to our instruction, so that from the very hinges on which the world turns, as if by four gospels we learn unceasingly what to preach and what to do” (Sermon XIX).
Of course, the whole season of Advent prepares us for the twofold coming of Christ: in humility in the manger at Bethlehem, and in great glory in judgement at the end of time. The intensification of that preparation by these Ember Days encourages us to the finishing line, that when the Lord appears he may find us ready and waiting, like the fig-tree we recalled on the First Sunday of Advent, who knows when summer is near and so puts out its rich fruit (Lk. 21: 29-33).
What form, though, should our readiness take? In what way can we put out our fruit in the knowledge that the Master is on his way to shed the bright rays of his divine presence on the darkness of our fallen world? Here the character of the Jewish fast of Tevet is, I think, key. Just as the People of Israel mourned the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, so we prepare in penance; not however looking back to the desolation that came before, but forward to the restoration of all things in the person of Christ. The temple whose destruction we mourn is not a physical building, but the sanctuary of the Garden of Eden. The devastation that brings us to fasting and abstinence is not the warfare of Babylonian kings, but the disobedience of our first parents, by which man’s perfect harmony with God was distorted and disturbed. Yet we look forward with hope to the undoing of these consequences of sin, and to the restoration of true union with God, a union which in turn brings about the restoration of true worship, itself the natural consequence of perfect unity with the action of the Most Holy Trinity.
By his condescension, Christ, true God and true man, opened the door to the restoration of our relationship with the Father, forfeited by our first sin. By his redeeming action on the cross of Calvary, he healed the wound of that sin and now offers us the chance to enter once more into the life of the Triune God. True worship is restored in Christ because he is at once the High Priest, the Temple, and the Lamb of Sacrifice. As the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed in the heavens . . . let us hold fast our profession” (Heb. 4: 14). It is he whom we await, and it is that union with God the Father in God the Son by God the Holy Spirit, for which we long in this holy time.
The winter Ember Days also point us to this idea of the restoration of true worship, linked as they are to the rites of ordination. In these days, those preparing for holy orders would be fed, spiritually, by the extended readings from scripture, and by the enriched ceremonies of the liturgy, before their ordination tomorrow, Ember Saturday. As we prepare for the coming of Christ in the season of Advent, the one in whom all sacrifice and priesthood finds its culmination, and by whom our relationship with the Father is restored, the Church prepared those who would act in his person, as the ministers and stewards of his mysteries, giving her faithful the means to offer the true worship of the true temple here in earth—the Eucharistic sacrifice, the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary: our glimpse into the eternal worship of heaven.
And do we not see evidence of this restoration of true worship in the scene of Christ’s own nativity? The animals and the shepherds together in their silent adoration; the magi with their gifts to present before the Infant King—the culmination of all the practices and cults and sacrifices of the old order, and an acknowledgement of the one in whom is fulfilled all priesthood, prophecy, and sovereignty. And still further we know that, at his second coming, what was begun in the stable will be completed as all things become subject to him. As the Psalmist says, “All kings shall fall down before him; all nations shall do him service” (Ps. 72: 11).
In this “in-between” time, then, we are to prepare for this true worship by making ourselves, through God’s grace and penance, fit to participate in it; fit to become one once more with the fullness of the life of Almighty God, by preparing our hearts, and souls, and minds, to join in the perfect adoration of the kingdom of heaven. As Charles Wesley would have it, so we are to pray: “Finish, then, Thy new creation; / Pure and spotless let us be. / Let us see Thy great salvation / Perfectly restored in Thee; / Changed from glory into glory, / Till in heaven we take our place, / Till we cast our crowns before Thee, / Lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
May these days truly configure us to the reality of Christ’s coming again, that through our fasting and penance we may be purified of all that keeps us from union with Almighty God that, being so purified, we may be one with him in this life in the true restored worship of the true restored temple, Christ the Lord, and so remain in his presence for all eternity.