In the midst of the annual fast of the season of Lent it may appear somewhat peculiar for the Church to call us to additional prayer and penance in the form of the three ember days that punctuate the liturgical calendar. During a period of restraint, and of intensified prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we might even consider it excessive to add further conditions to the spiritual wellbeing of the Christian faithful. The great wartime Archbishop of Milan, Blessed Ildefonso Schuster—no liturgical modernist he—went so far as to say: “It seems quite superfluous to speak of ember days in Lent … either these ember fast-days are a patchwork addition devoid of any particular significance, or else a place should be found for them apart from the paschal fast.” Yet here we are with this liturgical observance and, should we choose to observe it, a custom of fasting and abstinence that reaches back a thousand years. What is it then that, in her wisdom, our Holy Mother the Church is whispering to us in the words and actions that she asks us to perform this night, in these signs and symbols of love?
In fact, the ember days that we celebrate in this second full week of the season of Lent seem to be the latest to be introduced of the four sets that we find across the liturgical year. From earliest times there were three sets of ember days; in winter, autumn, and summer. The spring ember days came about somewhat later and, at least at first, had little to do with the season of Lent. They were instead connected to the natural season, placed in the first week of March to mark the arrival of spring, but with little regard for the liturgical year. It was Pope Saint Gregory VII who fixed the spring ember days in the season of Lent in the eleventh century, presumably to avoid clashing with Ash Wednesday, which itself became a part of the calendar of the Roman Church under Saint Gregory’s successor-but-one, Blessed Pope Urban II, in the year 1091.
So what is the reason for these ember days, and what is their importance? To understand this we must look to another ancient Roman tradition, that of the station churches by which the lay faithful, clergy, and bishop of that ancient see would come together for penitential prayers and, later, for the celebration of the Eucharist, in the different basilicas of the city on the days of Pre-Lent and Lent. This custom is maintained in the Eternal City to this day, not least by the Pontifical North American College, but also in the vestiges of the rite found in the Papal Liturgy on Ash Wednesday, with a penitential procession from Sant’Anselmo on the Aventine Hill to the ancient basilica church of Santa Sabina, for the Solemn Mass of Ash Wednesday.
On Ember Wednesday, the people gathered in the Liberian Basilica, that is Santa Maria Maggiore. Today, in the sixth century basilica church of the Twelve Holy Apostles, Santi Apostoli. Tomorrow, in the Vatican Basilica, Sancti Petri in Vaticano. The presence of Saint Peter’s on the calendar indicates something of importance took place and, judging from the introduction of the ember days at this time, we can quickly establish that it was, in fact, the rites of ordination. Having sought the intercession of Our Lady over the ordinands on Wednesday, and that of the Apostolic College on Friday, the rites of ordination would be carried out in the great Vatican Basilica on Saturday, to confirm, as Cardinal Schuster again puts it: “the eminently Roman idea that every transmission of ecclesiastical power, through the conferring of one of the sacred orders, was derived from the supreme power of Peter.”
These days it is unusual to have ordinations on Ember Saturday, no doubt in part because few people have heard of them. And certainly we ourselves, disconnected from the Roman stations and all the rich customs that accompany this observance, might understandably question the purpose of keeping these days since we are not preparing for ordination tomorrow!
Perhaps a less literal reading of this tradition might help us to embrace the graces that are available to us in this commemoration. With the theme of ordination in mind, we might recall that the nature of holy orders is the life-changing effect of God’s grace in the consecration of the man to a particular order. In the season of Lent, ought we not also seek to consecrate ourselves, albeit in a way that is different in kind, to the service of the Lord God? And ought we not seek to prepare for the bestowal of his grace in the celebration of the Paschal solemnity, with no less preparation than a man preparing for holy orders, a novice preparing to make Solemn Profession, or a bride and groom preparing for their wedding day? The proximate preparation for the reception of sacred ordination may be foreign to most of us, but surely the same intensity and intention should be at the heart of our Lenten pilgrimage toward the restoration of God’s grace in our lives, and the rebuilding of the relationship he has begun with us (and to which he has remained faithful even when we have not) in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
These ember days, then, offer us the chance to move further from the things of this world, and deeper into the desert of the Lenten fast. They call us closer to the heart of Christ, and to the refining fire that burns there, and which purifies our sins in order to make us fit for the beatific vision. Let us grasp this opportunity with both hands, and in union with countless generations before us seek to know Christ better, and to love him more surely, that conformed to his will in this life, we might remain with him in the life of the world to come.