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?
The cross, which is the principle image of our Lenten pilgrimage, is an unforgiving reminder of the sacrifice required of each of us, in order to share in the passion and death of Christ, and thus also in his resurrection. Yet knowing that such sacrifice is demanded of us, we know also that, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom. 6:8). In other words, we know that the wood of the cross is not dead, but alive through the sacrifice enacted upon it. As an ancient hymn in honour of the cross recalls, “Thou alone wast counted worthy / this world’s Ransom to sustain, / that a shipwrecked race for ever / might a port of refuge gain, / with the sacred Blood anointed / of the Lamb for sinners slain.” The cross, which appears to others as a sign of utter brutality, is to the Christian a life giving, enabling, and saving symbol of hope. As Saint Paul says: “the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
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.