Saturday, June 06, 2020

Dubium: Is It Appropriate to Fast during the Pentecost Octave?

Feelin’ Pentecostal now...
A friend of a friend recently posed a question:
I can’t seem to figure out why, during the Pentecost Octave they would insert three penitential Ember days. I truly want to be joyful and singularly reflect on the joy and incredible work of the Holy Spirit during this very high Octave. Why couldn’t they just move the Ember Days to (at least); the week after (if not a few weeks after) the Octave. We already had several somewhat penitential Rogation Days intruding on Ascension Octave, but since that’s only 1/yr (and considering its purpose) it makes sense. And then, the very next week we have to endure this invasion again with three penitential Ember Days in the next sublimely joyful and miraculous octave of Pentecost. Honestly, I feel like it’s liturgical schizophrenia, just too much. There is so much to reflect and mentally pray on within the Pentecost Octave. I just don’t understand inserting three Penitential days in an 8 day Octave; especially when we just did the same thing a week earlier (with the Rogation Days) in the Ascension Octave.
Let me make three general observations and then give four reasons why the traditional arrangement is a good one.
1.  It is appropriate that there be a summer fast. According to Pope St. Leo the Great:
This profitable observance, dearly beloved, is especially laid down for the fasts of the Church, which, in accordance with the Holy Spirit’s teaching, are so distributed over the whole year that the law of abstinence may be kept before us at all times. Accordingly we keep the spring fast in Lent, the summer fast at Whitsuntide, the autumn fast in the seventh month, and the winter fast in this which is the tenth month, knowing that there is nothing unconnected with the Divine commands, and that all the elements serve the Word of God to our instruction, so that from the very hinges on which the world turns, as if by four Gospels we learn unceasingly what to preach and what to do (Sermon 19.2).
Leo also claims that the seasonal Ember fasts were instituted by the Apostles, and he is probably right, for the Hebrews had them (Zech. 8:19) and it would have been fitting to appropriate them for Christian use, as the Church did with so many other elements of Old Testament worship.

Pope Leo says: “Fasting is fun!”
2.  Fasting is not necessarily sorrowful. Indeed, we have it on good authority that when we fast, we  should not be “like the hypocrites, sad” (Mt. 6:16), and even when we are sorrowful, we should still be always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10). An important goal of fasting is regaining self-mastery; by “afflicting” the flesh, we reassert our control over it. This reconquest need not be an occasion of sorrow. In fact, it could be, oddly enough, something to look forward to:
Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain!  And every one that striveth for the mastery refraineth himself from all things. And they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown: but we an incorruptible one.  I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air. But I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway. (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
St. Paul here is not sad; he is a spiritual Rocky Balboa, listening to his awesome theme song as he runs upon the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

3. The Pentecost Ember Days are not sorrowful, and they are barely penitential. As Fr. Francis X. Weiser explains,
This Embertide has assumed a special character which distinguishes it from all the others. Coinciding with the octave of Pentecost, it displays an interesting combination of penitential motives (in some of its Mass prayers) with the celebration of the great feast (Gloria, Credo, Alleluia Sequence, Pentecostal orations, red vestments, omission of “Flectamus Genua”). Because of this joyful note it used to be called “Ieiunium Exultationis” (the Fast of Exultation) in the Middle Ages. Abbot Rupert of Deutz (1130) wrote about it as follows: “It is not a fast to make us sad or to darken our hearts, but it rather brightens the solemnity of the Holy Spirit’s arrival; for the sweetness of the Spirit of God makes the faithful loathe the pleasures of earthly food.” [1]
Here I respectfully side with Fr. Weiser and Abbot Rupert against our friend who writes that “we have to endure this invasion again with three penitential Ember Days in the next sublimely joyful and miraculous octave of Pentecost.” It seems to me that when you read and pray the Ember Days of Pentecost, you do not experience a strong sense of penitence at all. Hence it does not come across as an alien “invasion” but, as Abbot Rupert puts it, an admittedly counter-intuitive way of “brighten[ing] the solemnity of the Holy Spirit’s arrival.”

The fourth prophecy of Ember Saturday of September, Zachariah 8, 14-19, in the so-called Lectionary of Alcuin, an epistolary of the 9th century whose contents represent the state of the Roman lectionary in the early 7th century. “The fast of the first month, and the fast of the fourth, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall for the house of Judah unto joy and gladness.” (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9452; folio 99r, image cropped.)
In light of these considerations, we conclude that it is wise and good that the Church of Rome, from a very early time, has observed the summer Ember Days during the Octave of Pentecost, and we summarize our position in the following four points:

1. The custom is a healthy corrective to a common misconception, namely, that fasting is necessarily sorrowful. The joy of Pentecost mingles with the penitence of the Embertide fasting to remind us that fasting, as a form of penitence, is an ascesis, an athletic training for the big fight that may involve pain and sacrifice but also involves a certain glee in anticipation, a getting into the zone, a zest for the upcoming match. “And every one that striveth for the mastery refraineth himself from all things.” So refrain, darn it, and run! When you fast during Pentecost, put on the soundtrack to Rocky and watch the training scenes on Youtube. It’s that kind of fast. You are getting your lazy bum of a soul into shape for fulfilling the Great Commission under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which you will be carrying out during the Time after Pentecost. Bom Bom Bom-Bom-Bom…

2. As just mentioned (and as Gregory DiPippo convincingly argues with the help of St. Leo the Great), the Whitsuntide fasts mix with the grace of the Holy Spirit to prepare us for the Time after Pentecost, which is the season of the Church calendar that corresponds to the age in which we are currently living, that is, the age in between the first Pentecost and the Last Judgment. It is the age of unabashed evangelization, the age of giving courageous witness to Christ, the age of putting the “militant” into the Church here below. You need to train and sacrifice for that kind of combat mission.

3. A case can be made that such a fast is better placed between Ascension and Pentecost, in imitation of the Apostle’s “sheltering in place” in the Upper Room, but the Church insists that there be no fasting during the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost (except during the Vigil of Pentecost), even though some penitential practices (such as the Rogation Days) are allowed. This rule strikes me as wise, for it helps the faithful recover from the austerity of Lent: forty days of fasting, fifty+ days of feasting is a good balance. The Church then places the joyful fast of the summer Ember Days on the earliest possible time available, to help the faithful whip themselves back into shape for the next season but not in a doleful manner. It is also worth noting that although the Blessed Virgin Mary and the disciples were “one mind in prayer” during the first Novena between Ascension and Pentecost, no mention is made of fasting (Acts 1:14).

4. A case can also be made, as does our friend, that the Ember fast be moved to a place after the Pentecost Octave, and indeed there is some evidence that this was the case in at least some places in the early Church (see here). We must therefore ask ourselves: did the Church make a mistake in the late Patristic or early medieval era when she definitively assigned the summer Ember Days to the Pentecost Octave? I would answer no, for the reasons I have already given. Early is good, and it does not violate the spirit of the Octave.

5. Finally, it is worth reflecting on the contrast between Rogationtide and the Whitsun Ember fasts. The former focus on penitence (violet vestments, long litanies, etc.), but they forbid fasting. The latter enjoin fasting, but they are utterly jubilant (red vestments, the sequence, lots of alleluias). There is more to be said on this subject, but one thing to note is that the Rogation Days are, if I may put it this way, not penitential for their own sake but for the sake of petitioning: the (mild) penitential practices are meant to “get God’s attention” so that He will answer a very long list of requests--and appropriately so, for during the Lesser Rogation Days we are basically assembling a great “wish list” and asking Christ to take it with Him and show it to the Father when He ascends into Heaven. So again I would quibble with the way our friend has articulated things: if you were doing things right, that is, according to the mind of the Church, you most certainly did not do “the same thing a week earlier (with the Rogation Days) in the Ascension Octave.” And two small corrections: the Lesser Rogation Days do not occur after the Ascension but on the three days prior to it. And, alas, the Ascension Octave is not in the 1962 Missal.

I hope these reflections help in deepening an appreciation of the traditional arrangement, but the ultimate clincher is to experience it yourself. It is too late now, but next year assist at the Pentecost Octave Masses, pray the Pentecost Octave Divine Office, observe the traditional fast, and see how you fare. This year I had the first and perhaps only opportunity in my life to do all three, and so I did. It has been glorious. As far as I am concerned, our medieval forebears were right: the Whitsuntide fasts are indeed a jejunium exultationis.

[1] Francis X. Weiser, SJ, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (NY: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1958), 35.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: