"Thus saith the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Juda, joy, and gladness, and great solemnities..."
-- Zachariah 8:19
Today (* see below) as well as this Friday Feb. 26th and Saturday Feb. 27th are the Ember Days of Lent, one of the "four times", the quatuor tempora, traditionally observed in the Roman Church; times that have been accompanied by fast and abstinence, aligned to and commemorative of the four natural seasons.
The specific matter of the Lenten Ember Days cannot arise without some mention that earlier in their history, there was only mention of three such times rather than the four we have so long been accustomed to -- namely, the other three embertides which occur in June, September and December; or the fourth, seventh and tenth months by the accounting of the old Roman calendar (which saw the first month being March). Dom Prosper Gueranger, in The Liturgical Year, explains that "we must remember that, in the spring, these Days always come in the first week of Lent, a period already consecrated to the most rigorous fasting and abstinence..." Blessed Ildefonso Schuster makes a similar commentary in The Sacramentary. This said, the inclusion of the fourth time is, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, spoken of at least as early as Pope Gelasius I in the latter part of the 5th century (ca. 492-496).
What primarily distinguished the Lenten Ember Days from the rest of Lent was not the fasting and abstinence, which would have been simply subsumed into the greater Lenten fast already underway, but rather things of a more strictly liturgical character; namely, the presence of the two lessons on the Ember Wednesday and six on Ember Saturday (more anciently, twelve, each lesson being sung once in Latin and repeated in Greek), the flectamus genua, and finally the particular stational churches for those days, (which are the same for all of the embertides): St. Mary Major for Ember Wednesday, the Twelve Holy Apostles for Ember Friday, and St. Peter's for Ember Saturday.
In our own day, however, when the rigour of the Lenten fast has been lessened in the Roman rite, there is an opportunity to at least consider fasting on these days, thereby both aligning oneself to the traditional discipline associated with the quatuor tempora and also taking on some additional fasting for the season of Lent itself.
The Readings of Lenten Embertide
by Gregory DiPippo
The Gospel account of the Transfiguration has a prominent place in the liturgy of the Lenten Ember Days, a unique feature of the Roman Rite. The Masses of the Ember Days form the link between the Gospel of the First Sunday, recounting Our Lord’s fast in the desert, and the account of the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday.
At the Mass of Ember Wednesday, there are two epistles, Exodus 24, 12 – 18, and 3 Kings 19, 3 – 8. In the first, Moses ascends Mount Sinai, where he beholds the vision of the glory of the Lord, preparatory to the revelation of the Law. In the second, the prophet Elijah, having fled into the desert from the persecution of Queen Jezabel, is comforted by the vision of an angel; he is strengthened by the vision to walk across the desert to Mount Sinai , (which the author of Kings calls by its other name, Horeb.) Both readings end by saying that Moses or Elijah fasted for forty days and forty nights, as did Our Lord in the desert. Moses and Elijah are therefore placed half-way between the Fast and the Transfiguration, at which they will appear again as witnesses, the Law and Prophets testifying that Christ is the Messiah who will come in glory. With the two prophets and three apostles present at the Transfiguration, the words of the Law are fulfilled that “every word will stand by the mouth of two or three witnesses.” (Deuteronomy 19, 15)
The Gospel of Ember Wednesday, Matthew 12, 38 – 50, begins with references to fasting, when the Lord speaks of the men of Nineveh who will arise and condemn the men of the present generation. Nineveh, of course, is the city that is saved from destruction by fasting, following the exhortation of the prophet Jonah. Our Lord also tells us that Jonah’s emergence from the whale is a sign of His resurrection; likewise, the Transfiguration anticipates the glory of Christ’s resurrection, as the Fathers of the Church agree.
On Ember Friday, the Church reads Saint John’s account of the healing of the sick man at the pool of Bethsaida near the Sheep-gate. (chapter 5, 1 – 15) Saint John tells us that this man was thirty-eight years old. Following the tradition of Christian exegesis, and pre-Christian Jewish exegesis, by which no detail is thought to be without significance, Saint Augustine explains in the lessons of Matins the symbolic meaning of this man’s age. The number forty symbolizes the striving for holiness in this world, as represented by the fasts of Moses, Elijah and the Lord: the Law, the Prophets and the Gospel. Christ Himself also says that the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets is found in the two precepts of charity, love of God and love of neighbor. Therefore, the thirty-eight years of the sick man represent the lack of charity; our striving for perfection in this world is sick and incomplete if we do have charity. Saint Augustine also explains that just as the forty days of Lent represent our struggle to live in holiness in this world, the fifty days of the Easter season represent our blessedness in the next life.
The Transfiguration is then read as the Gospel of both Ember Saturday and the Second Sunday of Lent. While the Mass of the Sunday repeats the Gospel from the preceding day, the Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion are repeated from the Ember Wednesday, further emphasizing the links between the Ember Days and the Second Sunday of Lent. The Offertory, taken from psalm 118, refers twice to the idea of charity as an expression of the Law of the Lord, the same idea expressed by Saint Augustine ’s interpretation of the Gospel of Ember Friday. “I will meditate on thy commandments, which I have loved exceedingly, and I will lift up my hands to thy commandments, which I have loved.”
* Usually. This year, as today is Feb. 24th and the Feast of St. Matthias, that takes precedence and the Ember day is merely commemorated.