Rorate Caeli

The Liturgy of Ember Saturday in Advent: Israel’s Longing for the Messiah

The singing of the young men in the furnace is central to the day's liturgy

We present a translation of Michael Charlier's article published today in German.

In the traditional liturgy, the Masses of the Ember Days in Advent are characterized by an extraordinary richness of readings and chants -- especially the Ember Saturday. While Wednesday has only two readings in addition to the Gospel, this Saturday has as many as 6 additional readings. With one exception, these Advent readings are all taken from the prophet Isaias, the great herald of the coming Messiah from the time of the 8th century BC. Then, on Saturday, there is the reading from the 2nd Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, in which the apostle prepares the congregation for the Second Coming of the Lord. Between these readings there are psalm chants (Graduale) and intercession-like orations, as on Good Friday; they are also introduced, as there, with the Oremus -- flectamus genua -- levate.

This order of readings is truly ancient and was practiced in this or in a similar way in all communities of the Latin Church until the liturgical reform of the 1960s. It is already found, with minor variations, in the second book of Rupert of Deutz's De Divinis Officiis from around 1100, and it is, as will be shown below, an expression of a self-understanding of the Church that goes far back into its pre-Christian prehistory. Perhaps for this reason it was unbearable to the reformers, who nevertheless claimed to want to open up the richness of Scripture more deeply.

Of all the Advent Masses, the Mass of the Ember Saturday is the one that most strongly expresses Israel's expectation of the Lord as Savior. It is the most deeply rooted of all liturgies in the tradition of the chosen people. At the same time, the selection from the prophecies of Isaiah makes it clear from the very first reading that, although the Messiah emerges from the people of Israel, his redemptive work is to benefit all people throughout the earth: All who follow him will belong to the new elect, the new Israel:

Yes, the Egyptians (= Gentiles) will recognize the Lord on that day and honor him with sacrifices and offerings. They will make and fulfill vows to the Lord. Thus the Lord will strike Egypt with calamity and then heal it. They will turn to the LORD, and be reconciled to him, and he will heal them, the LORD our God. (Is. 19)

The second reading also has the whole fallen creation in view:

The desolate, impassable desert will rejoice and blossom like a lily. It will sprout and green and rejoice in joy and gladness.... They will behold the glory of the Lord and the beauty of our God. (Is. 35)

The third reading then addresses the people of Israel directly:

Climb up on a high mountain, you who bring glad tidings for Sion; lift up your voice with power, you who bring glad tidings (evangelizas) for Jerusalem: shout aloud and fear nothing! Say to the cities of Judah: behold, there is your God! Behold God the Lord comes with power, and his arm shall rule. (Is. 40)

The 4th reading brings in the pericope from Isaias in which the Lord declares the pagan king Cyrus to be his instrument:

You shall know that I am God who calls you by your name, the God of Israel. For the sake of my servant Jacob and for the sake of Israel, my chosen one, I called you by your name; I clothed you even before you knew me. I am the Lord, and no one else is. (Is. 45)

It was the Persian king Cyrus who, after his victory over Babylon, allowed the upper class of Jews held there to return to their land in the 6th century, and who is therefore held in the highest esteem in the Old Testament writings that followed -- higher than any other non-Jew was held, and perhaps already a foreshadowing of the fact that salvation is to come to the Jews but will not be limited to them. In individual beliefs of late pre-Christian Judaism, as far as they can be inferred from non-canonical writings of the apocrypha, Cyrus even appears as a reincarnated Melchizedech and a prefiguration of the Messiah. These are remarkable indications that the widespread (and later renewed) "exclusivity thinking" in Israel had already begun to open in the pre-Christian centuries to a window of opportunity: the Messiah comes for all.

With the 5th reading, the liturgy turns away from the prophecies and toward the theme of the ordinations of priests: Before the ordination of the subdeacons, the passage from the prophet Daniel is recited that tells of the martyrdom of the three young men in the furnace of fire. Their steadfastness is to be a model for the men now to be ordained subdeacons and thus admitted to the clergy. It can be assumed that the recital of this pericope provided the impetus for celebrating the commemoration in the Martyrology of the Three (Ananias, Azarias and Misael) on December 16, in the time of the winter Ember Days.

In the traditional liturgy, the Church sings as a hymn between the readings V and VI the introduction of the "Canticle of the Three Youths" from the third chapter of the Book of Daniel, thus impressively underlining its commitment to the One God who revealed himself to the people of Israel as Yahweh and revealed his triune nature with the incarnation of his Son as Messiah. Not as a break with the previous revelation, but as its unfolding:

Blessed are You, Lord God of our fathers, praiseworthy and glorious forever.
Blessed is the name of Your glory, the Holy One, praiseworthy and glorious forever.
Blessed are You in the Holy Temple of Your Glory, praiseworthy and glorious forever.
Blessed are You on the Holy Throne of Your Kingship, praiseworthy and glorious forever.
Blessed are You because of the scepter of Your Divinity, praiseworthy and glorious forever.
Blessed are You who are enthroned above the cherubim, You whose gaze fathoms all depths, praiseworthy and glorious forever.
Blessed are You, riding on the wings of storms and the waves of the sea, praiseworthy and glorious forever.
All Your angels and saints will praise You, yea, they shall praise You and glorify You forever.
Let heaven, earth, and sea praise You with all their creatures, let them praise and glorify You forever.

This song of praise was most likely already performed liturgically in the second temple of Jerusalem. The Church continues to sing it in the traditional liturgy for the Liturgy of Ordinations on all four Ember Saturdays each year. It has disappeared entirely from the reformed liturgy of Paul VI -- as if this strong testimony to a continuity spanning millennia were embarrassing to the modern Church.

The 6th reading, the Epistle, takes from St. Paul's 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians the passage in which he exhorts the faithful to steadfastness in the tribulations before the Lord's return expected in the near future. This addresses the young men who will subsequently be ordained as deacons, as well as recalling that Advent is a preparation for the Second Coming.

Separated from the ordination of deacons only by the singing of a tract, the ordination of priests now takes place. The tract is taken from Psalm 79 and is also significant in its emphasis on continuity:

Take heed, O Shepherd of Israel, who like a little sheep feed Joseph. You who are enthroned above the cherubim, appear before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Offer up Your power, O Lord, and come to redeem us.

Following this, as the 7th reading and Gospel, is St. Luke's solemn account of the calling of the forerunner John. This reading, too, is addressed at once to the newly consecrated, to whom it presents their assumed tasks, and to the entire community of the faithful:

Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Let every valley be filled and every mountain and hill be cleared away! What is crooked shall be made straight, what is uneven shall become level! And all flesh shall behold God's salvation.

This pericope has not been lost to Advent in the Novus Ordo; it is now recited, outside of its original context, on the 2nd Sunday of Advent.

Those who have ears to hear hear in these words the echo of the "Benedictus" also recorded in Luke, the hymn of praise by Zacharias at the birth of his son John. This hymn -- which is an integral part of the morning prayer in the Divine Office of the Church -- has probably not found a place in the traditional liturgy of the Mass for this very reason. At least the clergy participating in the Mass still had it in their ears from Lauds, and among the pious people, too, the Benedictus belonged to the standard prayers.