‘Another step forward in our Christmas preparation!... By way of introduction to this ancient observance [of Ember Days], let us read an Ember sermon of Pope St Leo I:
“Dearly beloved brethren: With the anxious solicitude proper to us as the shepherd of your souls, we urge upon you the rigid observance of this December fast. The month of December has come round again, and with it this devout custom of the Church. The fruits of the year now drawing to a close have all been gathered in, and therefore meetly do we offer our abstinence to God as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. What can be more useful than fasting? By that exercise we draw near to God, we make strong stand against the devil, and overcome the sweet enticements of sin. Fasting has ever been the bread of strength. From fasting proceed pure thoughts, reasonable desires, and healthy counsels. Through voluntary mortification the flesh dies to lust, and the soul renews the practise of virtue.
But since fasting is not the only means to secure health for our souls, let us adorn our fasting with works of mercy. Our fast must be turned into a banquet for the poor. Let us devote time and effort to the underprivileged, the widow and the orphan; let us show sympathy to the afflicted and reconcile the estranged; provide lodging for the wanderer and relieve the oppressed; give clothing to the naked and cherish the sick. Thus every one who offers to the God of all goodness this Advent sacrifice of fasting and alms will become worthy to receive from Him the eternal reward of His heavenly kingdom!’
The observance of Ember Days, a most venerable feature of the liturgical calendar, dates back to early Roman antiquity (they are older than Advent). Pope Leo I (c.450) has left us a series of beautiful sermons for these days. Originally the Ember Days were an occasion of thanksgiving for the three great harvests of wheat, grapes, and olives – all very meaningful nature symbols employed by the liturgy. In the Offertory procession the faithful brought tithes of the harvest to be used for the offering then and there, for the support of the Church, and for the poor.
These days also stress spiritual renewal. In the bustle of business and work, we too easily forget our future status. Therefore, during these four times of the year we should concentrate on God and scrutinise our spiritual condition. Lent is our annual retreat, while the Ember Days serve as quarterly check-ups. A grave and earnest mood comes over Mother Church, but there are no tears or mourning. Fasting is not so much an expression of penitence and sorrow as a joyous tithe to God, and an incentive to almsgiving’.
from The Church’s Year of Grace, 1953, by Pius Parsch, 1884-1954
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God: that the coming festival of our redemption may obtain for us the comfort of thy succour in this life, and in the life to come the reward of eternal felicity; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Collect for the Ember Wednesday in Advent, Divine Worship: The Missal.
Fr Lee Kenyon