Monday, May 24, 2021

The Pentecost Embertide Fast: Renewing in Faith and Fervor the Gift Once Given

Stained glass window by C. E. Kempe in the church of St Giles in Cambridge.
Photo by Lawrence Lew, O.P.
A reader asked me a question last year at Pentecost, and I wanted to bring it up again this year now that we are within the ancient solemn Octave of Pentecost (in the authentic Roman rite of the Catholic Church). He had asked “why, during the Pentecost Octave, would the traditional liturgical calendar 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 the Ember Days be bumped to the week after? I feel like it’s liturgical schizophrenia.”

When I shared the question with my NLM colleague Michael Foley, he decided to write a response, which I highly recommend to readers: “Dubium: Is It Appropriate to Fast during the Pentecost Octave?” (This, I would note, is an example of a dubium that actually received a reply.)

Beyond all the excellent points made by Dr. Foley as well as by Gregory DiPippo whom he quotes in extenso, I would like to add that fasting is not just a sign of penance, but also a sign of solemnity, urgent preparation, and efficacious supplication. Remember what Jesus says to the apostles: “Some demons can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” So if we are building up to ordinations, when the devil and his restive servants have more than a little interest in ruining things or at least marring them, it’s highly appropriate for us to fast, even in the midst of celebrating the outpouring of the Third Person. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit that drives out unclean and malicious spirits; conversely, the evil angels wage war throughout the whole of history against the gifts and fruits of the Spirit of God. The loss of fasting is, from that perspective, of a piece with the loss of effective belief in the devil and in the spiritual combat in general.

A priest friend of mine, who had been a monk in a Novus Ordo monastery and is now living in a traditional Benedictine community, shared with me his great disappointment during those earlier decades whenever Pentecost came: it lasted one day, then immediately gave way to “Ordinary Time.” As he immersed himself in the traditional Octave (including the pre-55 Vigil of Pentecost), he noted the crucial lesson it imparts: the prolongation of the feast with an octave shows that, even after the gift of the Holy Spirit has been bequeathed to the Church, we must pray constantly for His light and consolation. We must pray earnestly that the gift once given—to which the Church has, as it were, a permanent right—will reach ourselves and will renew the face of the earth in our times. One could compare the gift of Pentecost to a trust fund, where the beneficiaries receive payments if they request them, but not if they forget about it or ignore it.

By suppressing the octave and praying for the Spirit only in the lead-up to the feast, the subtle impression is given that after the day of Pentecost the Church cannot do anything wrong, since “the Church already has the Holy Spirit.” In other words, we recall the Apostles asking, but we do not recall liturgically the Apostles continuing to ask and deepening their relationship with the Font of Life and Fire of Love, and our need to emulate them in that regard. As Fr. Zuhlsdorf never tires of pointing out, the fact that the Church is indefectible in herself does not mean you or I or any bishop or any Christian land is incapable of defecting from the Faith or being destroyed by enemies. And frankly, since the liturgical changes, we have seen a skyrocketing increase in bad decisions and confusing (if not erroneous) teaching.

One is reminded, in this connection, of the flurry of Facebook posts that always go up when a Novus Ordo Solemnity coincides with a Friday: “No abstinence from meat necessary today!” According to the letter of the law, that is quite correct. But if we step back and consider the almost total loss of asceticism from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar—our fasting and abstinence requirements are laughably minimalistic and constitute a never-ending scandal of counterwitness against the truth of what we claim to believe and the sources of our faith—then we will see that the preconciliar practice of abstaining on Fridays regardless of what feasts may arise is a far better practice, because it retains the symbolism of the connection between each Friday and Good Friday, maintains a stable habit from week to week, and offers us a recurring opportunity for self-denial. The same may be said of fasting during Lent, and, finally, of Ember Day and Rogation Day fasts. Most of our fasting is and is meant to be penitential, but some of it, as we have seen, is simply an expression of spiritual earnestness, a cleansing of the mind, and an additional weight of supplication for others in the Mystical Body.

Love makes burdens light. That is one of the signs that the Holy Spirit is truly in our midst: He moves us to do more, to suffer more, to abstain from material goods and to embrace spiritual ones with greater fervor. This is what the Pentecost Ember Days remind us of; this is the light burden, born of joy and expectation, to which they challenge us. The real liturgical schizophrenia, it seems, would consist in saying we believe these great mysteries but then acting in no way different from our unbelieving neighbors.

The Church in history is like this incomplete sketch by Van Dyck:
in one sense the picture is clear, in another it remains to be filled in.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: