Michael Foley wrote a wonderful piece on the Ember Days for Rorate Caeli a few years ago. His words resonate in my mind and heart as we celebrate the Advent Ember Days, with the readings full of longing for the coming of the Savior, these truly ancient seasonal affirmations that combine the natural and the spiritual, that find their roots in that symbiotic relationship between nature and liturgy that once was known and felt by every Catholic. Each Ember season has its own color.
The Lenten Ember Days are the shade of hole-filled unpolished travertine that is streaked with that purplely blue that is redolent of the crocus that pops up out of the ground and heralds Spring and that points to the brilliant heavenly blue of Easter. The post-Easter Ember Days are that Spirited red that contains a hint of the eternity blue of the Ascension, that color that looks forward to the heaven-puncturing event of the Ascension and yet encompasses and looks back to the blood of the Lamb who now ascends with glory into glory, and to the future in the Spirit. The September Ember Days are that reddish gold green that points to brown, the changing of the leaves, the harvest that marks the end of the growing season, that chorus of thanksgiving for the marvel of man as planter and tiller and keeper and cook and enjoyer of the fruits of the earth.
Last week I was looking at the old stone wall in my back yard covered with snow. That stone, grey, flecked with the diamonds of mica, so stolid, so just there, and yet with the new snow as a garland, spoke to me of the stony faith of Israel, solid and yet fractured, full of that sparkling longing for more than grey and solid, and festooned with the brilliant white of snow, the snow of Isaiah’s “though your sins be as scarlet”, the snow of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, the snow of the lights in the darkness of St. Nicholas and St. Lucy, the sharp and piercing break-through white of the affirmation of faith of St. Thomas, all leading to that whiteness of the Light that was born at Christmas.
The Ember Days—part of the ancient liturgical rhythm of the Church—were abolished in the post-Vatican II reforms.
This contributed to the denaturalization of the liturgy, the sundering of the bond between the natural and the supernatural. How could the Ember Days survive in that determined and mistaken drive to individualize and contemporize the liturgy? The Ember Days are an affront to an individualistic and denatured understanding of the liturgy and the Catholic faith.
A Methodist minister was de-frocked (sic) the other day for officiating at the marriage of his son to a man. What he did was against the current canons of the Methodist church that presumably, with respect to marriage, are based on Scripture and Tradition. One can easily imagine the media’s interest in this situation, and it does not take too much imagination to picture the media’s reaction.
This is all part of the “inevitable” dissolution of sexuality to gender and to the then logical affirmation of gay marriage. The minister defended his act in the name of love for his son. He wanted him to be happy, and he asked how, as a father, could he possibly stand in the way of his son’s happiness. This is an obvious and familiar of the playing out of an individualistic understanding of happiness that is amoral. But that this minister did not consider what Christian love means as seen in the parable of the Prodigal Son, shows how far Christians have come on the road towards a Christianity that is really sentimental religiosity. There is no greater love of a father for his son than in the parable of the Prodigal Son. But the mercy that the father shows his son comes from the joy that the son has returned home, that he has realized his sinfulness, that he repents of what he has done: Father, I have sinned against you. But the father embraces the son even before those words are spoken. That is what the love of God means: not that there is no justice or punishment, but that in the face of contrition, mercy veils and embraces justice. Justice is not negated but is embraced in the arms of the Father.
Ember Wednesday in Advent begins with the Introit, “Rorate Caeli." The verb, “rorate” is practically impossible to translate, echoed in the medieval carol “as dew in April falleth on the grass," the coming of the Son of God into this world with the gentleness and hiddenness of dew.
The gospel for the Mass is the Annunciation, that announcing to the world that Grace is real. Ember Friday in Advent continues to speak of the longing of the Jews for redemption. The Visitation gospel continues the story of Mary that is the story of salvation history that will culminate on Ember Saturday with the figure of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord. All this as the days grow shorter, and there is more darkness. But then—by Christmas Day-- the days grow longer, ah, yes, by seconds and then minutes, but nevertheless the Light that shines in the darkness grows longer and once again comes that Spring that is not merely temporal and seasonal—although it is this—but rather points to and partakes and makes real in the liturgy that renovation, that renewal, that reconstruction, that pours forth from the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
May we use these Ember Days to prepare ourselves for Christmas by fasting, abstinence and prayer. And may we become part of that sacred rhythm that is the song of God so that we may greet with great joy on Christmas Day Him who is Love Incarnate.