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?
Having already discussed the general origin and development of Ember Days in their context in the season of Advent, this article will consider the second set of Ember Days in the liturgical year, those of the first full week of Lent, as they appear in Divine Worship: The Missal.
History of the Ember Days in Lent
To begin we must look at the specific purpose of the Ember Days in the season of Lent. Dom Prosper Guéranger notes that, in common with those in December, these Ember Days are oriented toward the bestowal of holy orders that traditionally took place on Ember Saturday, just before the Second Sunday of Lent. He comments that they are also “to offer to God the season of spring, and, by fasting and prayer, to draw down His blessing upon it.” The context of the Ember Days within the season of Lent is in fact a later development. Marking the natural season, rather than the liturgical season, the Ember Days began as celebrations of the season of spring in the first week of March, and were only fixed to days in Lent by Pope Saint Gregory VII in the eleventh century. Archdale King notes that the Ember Days in general “appear at the first to have no fixed date, the Pope announced their celebration some time in advance.” More than that, Josef Jungmann states that the idea of holding Ember Days in spring at all was, in fact, a comparatively late addition, introduced only after the development of those in summer, autumn, and winter. He writes: “We say quattuor tempora, but the most ancient sources of the Roman liturgy speak only of three such times … The fourth place, in spring, remained free, because there was already the great season of Quadragesima.” According to Jungmann, the adoption of the fourth set of Ember Days, in spring at first and then later specifically in Lent, may have brought about the transferral of the Mass formulary for the Ember Days in December to Lent, and the composition of new texts for the Ember Days in December with, as he puts it, “an Advent character”—an hypothesis he draws from the history of ordination practices in Rome.
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.
On the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the first week of the season of Advent, Divine Worship: The Missal gives three Mass formularies for the winter, or Advent, Ember Days. In the Book of Common Prayer, as in the calendar and missal of 1962, these fall in the last full week of Advent, following the feast of Saint Lucy on 13 December. They are days traditionally marked by fasting and abstinence, and from at least the fifth century they were also associated with the spiritual preparation for ordinations. Here we will briefly consider the Ember Days in general, and also the particular context of the Ember Days of Advent in Divine Worship: The Missal.
As we reach the final days of this season of Advent, the sacred liturgy draws our attention to the Lord’s imminent coming in a number of ways. First, the beautiful antiphons which adorn the daily singing of the Magnificat from 17th December – the “O Antiphons” – intensify our prayer, and add a certain urgency. In these texts the Church petitions her Lord under a different title each day, and for a different need. These prophetic titles – like many of the lections at Mass in the past few weeks – remind us that the coming of Christ is the fulfillment of the old dispensation. By calling on the Lord as Radix Iesse, Emmanuel, and so forth, we proclaim our belief that in Christ all prophecy and preparation is ended; he is the alpha and the omega, and in him all things find perfection.