The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

The Ember Days of September

For the fourth time in Her year, Holy Church comes claiming from Her children the tribute of penance, which, from the earliest ages of Christianity, was looked upon as a solemn consecration of the seasons. The Quatuor Tempora (Four Times) include the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of four separate weeks, which fall roughly near the changes of the four seasons of the year. We may consider it as one of those practices which the Church took from the Synagogue; for the prophet Zacharias speaks of the fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months (Zach. 8: 19). Its introduction into the Christian Church would seem to have been made in the apostolic times; such, at least, is the opinion of St. Leo, of St. Isidore of Seville, of Rabanu Maurus, and of several other ancient Christian writers. It is remarkable, on the other hand, that the Eastern Rites do not observe this fast.

From the first ages the Quatuor Tempora were kept, in the Roman Church, at the same time of the year as at present. As to the expression, which is not infrequently used in the early writers, of the three times and not the four, we must remember that in the spring, these days come in the first week of Lent, a period already consecrated to the most rigorous fasting and abstinence, and that consequently they could add nothing to the penitential exercises of that portion of the year.

The beginnings of the winter, spring, and summer quarters were sanctified by abstinence and fasting, and each of them, in turn, has received Heaven's blessing; and now autumn is harvesting the fruits which divine mercy, appeased by the satisfactions made by sinful man, has vouchsafed to bring forth from the bosom of the earth, notwithstanding the curse that still hangs over her (Gen. 3: 17). The precious seed of wheat, on which man's life mainly depends, was confided to the soil in the season of the early frosts, and, with the first fine days, peeped above the ground; at the approach of glorious Easter, it carpeted our fields with its velvet of green, making them ready to share in the universal joy of Jesus' Resurrection; then, turning into a lovely image of what our souls ought to be in the Season of Pentecost, its stem grew up under the action of the hot sun; the golden ear promised a hundred-fold to its master; the harvest made reapers glad; and, now that September has come, it calls on man to fix his heart on that good God, Who gave him all this store. Let him not think of saying, as that rich man of the Gospel did, after a plentiful harvest of fruits: "My soul! thou hast much goods laid up for many years! Take thy rest, eat, drink, make good cheer!" And God said to that man: "Thou fool! this night do they require thy soul of thee; and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?" (Luke 12: 16-21) If we would be truly rich before God, if we would draw down His blessing on the preservation, as well as the production, of the fruits of the earth, let us, at the beginning of this last quarter of the year, have recourse to those penitential exercises whose beneficial effects we have always experienced in the past. The Church gives us the commandment to do so, by obliging us, under penalty of grievous sin, to fast on these three days, unless we be lawfully dispensed.

We have already spoken of the necessity of private penance for the Christian who is at all desirous to make progress in the path of salvation. But in this, as in all spiritual exercises, a private work of devotion has neither the merit nor the efficacy of one that is done in company with the Church, and in communion with Her public act; for the Church, as Bride of Christ, communicates an exceptional worth and power to works of penance done, in Her name, in unity with others. St. Leo the Great is very strong on this fundamental principle of Christian virtue. We find him insisting on it in the sermons he preached to the faithful in Rome, on occasion of this fast, which was then called the fast of the seventh month. (The ancient Roman calendar had only ten months.) "Although," says he, "it be lawful for each one of us to chastise his body by self-imposed punishments, and restrain, with more or less severity, the concupiscences of the flesh which war against the spirit, yet there is need that, on certain days, a general fast be celebrated by all. Devotion is all the more efficacious and holy, when the whole Church is engaged in works of piety, with one spirit and one soul. Everything, in fact, that is of a public character is to be preferred to what is private; and it is plain, that so much the greater is the interest at stake, when the earnestness of all is engaged in it. As for individual efforts, let each one keep up his fervor in them; let each one, imploring the aid of divine protection, take to himself the heavenly armor, wherewith to resist the snares laid by the spirits of wickedness; but the soldier of the Church, though he may act bravely in his own private combats, yet will he fight more safely and more successfully, when he shall confront the enemy in a public engagement; for then he has not only his own valor to which to trust, but he is under the leadership of a King Who can never be conquered, and engaged in a battle fought by all his fellow-soldiers; so that, being in their company and ranks, he has the fellowship of mutual aid… See, most dearly beloved, here is the solemn fast of the seventh month urging us to profit by this invincible unity… Let us raise up our hearts, withdraw from worldly occupations, and steal some time for furthering our eternal welfare… In the eyes of God, my dearly beloved, it is a great and precious sight, when all Christ's people are earnest at the same Offices; and when, without any distinction, men and women of every grade and order are all working together with one heart."

Let us not, in our prayers and fasts, forget those preparing for Holy Orders. The Ember Saturday of September is a traditional day for ordinations, although it is historically of less prominence than other such days in the liturgical year. The sublime function, to which the faithful owe their fathers and guides in the spiritual life, has, however, a special interest at this period of the year, which, more than any other, is in keeping with the present state of the world in its rapid decline towards ruin. Our year, too, is on the fall, as we say. The sun, which we beheld rising at Christmas as a giant who would burst the bonds of frost asunder and restrain the tyranny of darkness, now, as though he had grown weary, is drooping towards the horizon; each day we see him gradually leaving that glorious zenith, where we admired his dazzling splendor on the day of our Emmanuel's Ascension; his fire has lost its might; and though he still holds half the day as his, his disc is growing pale. So it is with our world. Illumined as it was by the light of Christ, and glowing with the fire of the Holy Ghost, it sees, in these our days, that charity is growing cold (Matt. 24: 12), and that the light and glow it had from the Sun of Justice are on the wane. Each revolution takes from the Church some jewel or other, which does not come back to Her when the storm is over; tempests are so frequent, that tumult is becoming the normal state of the times. Error predominates, and lays down the law. Iniquity abounds. It is Our Lord Himself Who said: "When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find, think ye, faith on earth?" (Luke 18: 8)

Lift up your heads, then, ye children of God! for your redemption is at hand (Luke 21: 28-31). But, from now until that time shall come when heaven and earth are to be made new for the reign that is to be eternal, and shall bloom in the light of the Lamb, the Conqueror, days far worse than these must dawn upon this world of ours, when the elect themselves would be deceived, if that were possible! (Mark 13: 22) How important is it, in these miserable times, that the pastors of the flock of Christ be equal to their perilous and sublime vocation! Let us then fast and pray; and how numerous so ever may be the losses sustained in the Christian ranks, of those who once were faithful in the practices of penance, let us not lose courage. Few as we may be, let us group ourselves round the Church, and implore of Jesus, Her Spouse, that He vouchsafe to multiply His gifts in those whom He is calling to the now more than ever dread honor of the Priesthood; that He infuse into them His divine prudence, whereby they may be able to disconcert the plans of the impious; His untiring zeal for the conversion of ungrateful souls; His perseverance even unto death, in maintaining without reticence or compromise the plenitude of that truth which He has destined for the world, and the inviolate custody of which is to be, on the Last Day, the solemn testimony of the Bride's fidelity.

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