The Mass in Latin and English
Third Sunday of Advent
Dominica Tertia Adventus
Ember Days in Advent
Today, the third Sunday of Advent,
is called Gaudéte Sunday from the opening words of the Introit: “Gaudéte
in Dómine semper .... Modéstia vestra nota sit omnibus homínibus—Rejoice
in the Lord always…. Let your moderation be known to all men.” The
vestments are rose colored to suggest a moderation of the rigors of Advent.
“Take today easy,” and then get back to a careful observance of the season
in preparation for a worthy Christmas.
Those Latin words, “modéstia vestra”
are sometimes translated as “your modesty,” and sometimes as “your moderation.”
I use “moderation” because that includes modesty and a great deal more. We are
material creatures who have to live in the world, so our “moderation” must go
farther than modesty in dress and modesty in speech. We must learn to make use
of all things with moderation, We must use only what we need and what is
morally proper for us to have—the same is true if we are talking about food or
clothing, the car we drive, the entertainment we enjoy, what we have to say
about ourselves and about others—the need for moderation goes on and on.
The Church helps us to practice that
moderation with seasons like Advent and Lent, with the abstinence prescribed on
most Fridays, and with the Ember Days which occur four times a year. The Ember
Days of Advent will fall this coming Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, so perhaps
a few words about them are in order.
You probably know that the early Church
tried to lead people away from paganism by giving the pagan holidays and
festivals a new Christian meaning. The ember days are a good example. In pagan
Rome, they worshipped a number of false gods associated with agriculture,
celebrating festivals in their honor at appropriate times of the year.
Primitive societies live, so to speak, “on the edge,” so it was thought wise to
keep the gods happy in hope that they would provide a good harvest in July, a
good grape crop for the winemaking in September, and productive seeding of the
next year’s crop in December or January. When Christianity became legal in the
Empire, the Church sought to obscure the pagan celebrations by prayers to the
one true God at about the same times of the year. We have an early third
century writing by Pope Callixtus I (217-222) that describes the fasting
associated with these Ember Days, but the days predate Pope Callixtus, and may
possibly go back to the Apostles themselves. A fourth set of days in the
spring, mentioned by Pope Saint Gelasius I, were observed at least as early as
the fifth century.
Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday were
widely observed in the early Church—often with Holy Mass offered publicly, or
days observed privately as days of fast or abstinence. In each of the four
seasons these observances were made public—the quarterly thanksgiving of
Catholic people for all of the favors God bestowed in the past quarter; for
God’s continued blessings during the coming quarter; to instruct the faithful
on the benefits of moderation in food, drink, and dress; and to provide for the
needs of the poor with what was saved by fasting.
Also, in the fifth century, Pope
Gelasius authorized the ordination of the clergy during the ember days—something
previously done only at the end of Holy Week. The ordinations usually take
place on the ember Saturdays, and those Saturday Masses used today have a number
of readings—five from the Old Testament, an epistle, and a Gospel—which means
that each of the steps of Holy Orders can be conferred between the readings.
Porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon, and priest.
The readings usually deal with the
themes of good harvests, healing from sickness, and defense of the righteous.
However, the Advent readings deal more with the coming of the Savior, drawing
heavily from Isaias, the Prophet of the Incarnation.
In the early days, the ember days were
observed only at Rome, and they had no fixed position on the calendar other than
one set being assigned to each season. The actual dates were st by the Pope and
the Roman clergy. As the custom spread throughout the Western Church the days
became fixed—always the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday—in spring following the
first Sunday in Lent; the summer during the Pentecost octave; in autumn
following the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14; and in winter during the
complete week before Christmas Eve, following St. Lucy's Day, Dec. 13, which is
this week following Gaudéte Sunday.
Finally, I have to admit that the origin
of the word “ember” is up for dispute. Some people say it is derived from the
Latin “quator tempora” meaning “four times.” Others say that it comes
from the Anglo-Saxon “ymbren” which would refer to the annual cycle of
the liturgical year. The two theories seem to merge in the German word for the
observances, “quatember,” which becomes simply “ember” upon
dropping the first syllable.
So this coming week we have the
opportunity to take part in a tradition nearly as old as the Church Itself.
Please make Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday days of Advent discipline, days of
saving what is surplus to give to the poor, days of praying for those who
receive Holy Orders on Saturday—above all, make them days of thanksgiving and
prayer for those things which our Church and society need. Particularly pray
for conversions and peace.