The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are each rich with the narrative of the life and works of Christ. Together they make up what are known as the “synoptic gospels,” and over the course of a three year cycle the Church nourishes us with these narratives in the readings at Mass. In them we hear described in detail, and from various perspectives, the events of the life of Christ. Alongside these texts we often find ourselves diverted by a reading from the gospel according to Saint John. This gospel not only reinforces the narratives presented by the other three gospels, but also offers a mystical tone that demands a special effort in reading. Little in the text of the gospel according to Saint John is coincidental. Whereas the Matthew, Mark, and Luke provide a storyline for us to follow, John also uses specific words and ideas, in the context of retelling that narrative, to proclaim the great truths of our faith and in particular those regarding the person of Christ.
The season of Lent and the three Sundays of Septuagesimatide that precede it are marked by a certain liturgical character of restraint. Certainly, in Lent itself we intensify our individual practice of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, but the sacred liturgy itself is also affected by this penitence, in perhaps a more communal and ecclesial way, most markedly by the omission of the Gloria in excelsis on Sundays, and the insertion of a Tract in place of the usual meditative chant before the Gospel. The texts of all of the propers are intrinsically linked to the music to which they have been set, and vice versa. They are a form of cantillation: “a song which arises from the text, a song which is essentially a heightened proclamation of a verbal message.” The promotion of, and principled use of the propers given for every Eucharistic celebration was a central tenet of the twentieth century liturgical movement, together with the restoration of the chant as the musical language of the Church’s song of praise. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, even stated: “Gregorian chant [is] specially suited to the Roman liturgy . . . it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). Thus the propers, by which we mean principally the text, but also the music that serves it, is part of the Church’s law of prayer, the lex orandi, that informs and articulates her law of faith, the lex credendi.
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.
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 the Church moves ever closer to the start of the season of Lent, today she pauses on the threshold of the great fast, to provide an opportunity for recollection and final preparation for the coming penance, and a chance for each of us to ensure that our hearts are truly ready to enter into the forty days and forty nights that help to purify us for the celebration of the Paschal feast.
In a most practical way, these Sundays of Pre-Lent, marking as they do seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter, act (to use an image of Blessed Pope Paul VI) as the bells of a church tower, calling us to the sacred mysteries some thirty, fifteen, and five minutes before the Mass. Today, the same urgency and anticipation that we experience (please God) each time we come to worship the Lord in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is applied to our spiritual preparation for Lent. We have had three weeks to shift from the comfort of our normal pattern of life—our lukewarmness and our hardness of heart—and to be poised, as an athlete at the starting line, to run the race that is set before us (cf. Heb. 12:1).
The Sunday next before Lent, or Quinquagesima, is celebrated at the start of the week in which the Church keeps Ash Wednesday, and so begins her fasting preparation for Easter. Although the Eastern Churches mark this Sunday by further abstaining from dairy, in the Latin Church the character of the pre-Lent season continues to be articulated by a purely liturgical penitence. Due to this, the days that follow Quinquagesima are associated with celebrations such as Mardi Gras—the last moments of celebration before the rigours of Lent properly ensue. In England, particularly in the north, the Monday following Quinquagesima has historically been referred to as Collop Monday, because it saw the eating-up of leftover slices of meat, particularly bacon. The following day continues to be known as Shrove Tuesday, and aside from the eating of pancakes—a further means of enjoying the last moments before Ash Wednesday—the day is set aside for the practice of confession (shriving) before the start of Lent. In a sermon for Quinquagesima, Ælfric of Eynsham encourages his people in this practice, saying: “Now a pure and holy time draws near, in which we should atone for our neglect. Every Christian, therefore, should come to his confession and confess his hidden sins, and amend according to the guidance of his teacher.” Continue reading
The solemn celebration of this most holy night, in which we commemorate the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, affords us the opportunity to recognize once again the great outpouring of love and grace which is the sacrifice of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. By participation in these sacred rites and in those of the coming days the Church invites us, her children, to enter into the mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection, in a more intense and renewed way, uniting ourselves to the perfect oblation of God the Son to God the Father in and through God the Holy Spirit. In the three days on which we have now embarked, the saving acts of the Lord are retold so that we might recognize what our God has done for us, and so strive to respond by lives oriented toward his eternal presence.
Over the past several weeks the Church’s public prayer has guided us ever closer to the events of the passion, death, and resurrection of our blessed Lord. On Septuagesima Sunday we began (as it were) our gradual breathing-in; preparing ourselves for the holy Lenten fast which, beginning on Ash Wednesday, has acted as a discipline both in the external stripping-back and simplification of the liturgical rites, and in our personal piety, through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Last Sunday, Lætare Sunday, we took a moment to lift ourselves from this rigour and prepare for the final push. Today, with the beginning of Passiontide, we enter the final moments before the events of Holy Week and the sacred triduum itself. Even more than the rest of Lent, Passiontide is marked by a character of restraint in the liturgy: the prayers at the foot of the altar are abbreviated, the Gloria Patri is not said, and the altar cross and images of the church are veiled, in order to help to us focus on the reality of the mystery which, for the rest of the year, those sacred objects assist us to understand.
The tradition of hearing the account of the transfiguration of the Lord on this second Sunday of the season of Lent is a venerable one. In the midst of the disciplines and penances of this sacred time, Christ comes to us in the words of the holy gospel to encourage us in our pilgrimage through the wilderness, journeying as we are from slavery to sin to the freedom of the promised land of our heavenly inheritance. By revealing his glory to his apostles, the Lord impresses on them the reality of his divine person that it might, as Dom Prosper Guéranger puts it, “keep up their faith in that trying time, when the outward eye would see nothing in his person but weakness and humiliation”. As it is with the apostles preparing to witness the passion and death of Christ, so it is with us who draw closer and closer now to the unsettling events of Holy Week, when we will again become participants in the mystery of the Lord’s sacrifice.