On Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this week, the Church commemorates the “Ember Days” of autumn, which are held traditionally each year after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Ember Days, called “The Four Times” in Latin, are ancient liturgical commemorations of the changing of the seasons. They are penitential days, in which the Christian does extra penance like fasting and abstaining from meat. On the Ember Days, we are invited to enter more deeply into the mystery of Jesus’s Cross (September 14), following beautifully the example of Our Lady of Sorrows (September 15) and St. Francis of Assisi in his Stigmata (September 17).
Ember Days are a wonderful synecdoche of the Church’s nuanced relationship to creation. On the one hand, these celebrations affirm deeply the goodness of creation. The presence of these celebrations of the changing seasons in the Roman Liturgy from ancient times witnesses to the deep connection of the Christian soul to the cosmos and the marvels of nature. Together with the direction of liturgical prayer “ad orientem,” facing the rising sun, the Church’s Ember Days tell us that nature is good and is part of our connection to God’s Uncreated Goodness. These practices of our worship teach us that Jesus is Lord of all creation.
On the other hand, it is profoundly noteworthy that these celebrations of the seasons are days of penance. With this traditional discipline, the Church confesses to Almighty God that man so often misuses nature and mistakes the limited goodness of creation for the Limitless Goodness of the Creator. Thus, far from the gluttonous harvest festivals favored by the world, the Church uses the changing of the seasons as opportunities to give thanks to God for His gifts by abstaining from them. The Church speaks in her fasting and abstinence the full truth about nature: that creation is good and that the Creator is infinitely better. This is the wisdom of the Cross, with which Jesus’s Bride, filled with joy, has placed over the whole of creation.
The penitential character of the Ember Days teaches us to reject the false gospels of nature and creation in the world today and to accept the Gospel of the Cross, the truth of Reality as it is. Our discovery of Reality in the Sacred Liturgy reveals to our souls the truth that God’s Goodness is everything, that creation’s goodness is its echo, and that fallen man has to deny himself of the latter to be free to love the former.
Ember Days are intense. They keep us humble and grounded and connected to nature. They teach us to beware, lest we forget God amidst the goodness of the created world. In this penitential time, we pray especially in our tradition for priests, who were often ordained in times past on Ember Days. May our joy in divine worship, for which priests are ordained, always teach us to love everything in the Creator and the Creator in everything, denying ourselves and dying with Him, so that we may find our true selves in the infinite Beauty of the Beatific Vision.
Fr. Joseph Previtali