In the beginning God created man; male and female He created them in His own image and likeness. God gave us free will and the intellect necessary to manage our own earthly affairs. God also created animals lacking the rational soul of man, forming them in such a way that their affairs are managed more by instinct than by reason.
About this time each year we in Florida begin to see God’s plans coming to life in nature with the migration of the birds. We will see large flocks in the skies, great gatherings on the power lines, and soon we will se a host of little gray, white, and brown creatures running back and forth with the tides at the sea shore. Birds from North America, in fact, travel to South America; and when the “swallows return to Capistrano” in Italy, they are actually returning from Africa.
At the same time, the more stationary animals of the north begin to hide nuts for the winter or to eat with an appetite such that their bulk will sustain them as they drift in and out of the seasonal sleep that we call hibernation. Even without any conscious effort, the furry animals will begin to develop thicker coats. It may be the cooler temperatures, or it may be the changing angle of the Sun—perhaps the decrease in daylight or the increase in the hours of darkness. The animal instinct seems to react to these cues automatically.
We are told that human beings also react to these subtle signs of nature on some level—but, by and large, human activity is directed by rational planning. Men and women know from immemorial experience that they must stack firewood in a dry place for the coming months, salt meat and can vegetables, make proper clothing for themselves and their children, and make provisions for their livestock. Even here in sunny Florida we know that it will soon be safe to take down the hurricane shutters, and that it will time to get that old coat out of mothballs—for many of us, the one we bought twenty-five years ago when we lived where it got cold in October. Rational men and women plan, rather than acting on instinct.
In a similar manner, rational men and women plan the seasonal activities of the spiritual life. The same immemorial wisdom that enables us to plan for our physical needs from season to season enables us to plan for our spiritual needs as well. Indeed, sometimes the two overlap. The Church does some of this for us, having long ago laid out the seasons of the liturgical year and the feasts of the saints. There are times for feasting and for fasting. It is relatively easy to remember to feast—Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, and perhaps a few other feasts of our Lord and Lady.
But there are also times when we are called upon to prepare the days and the seasons by fasting—times when our prayer is to be more penitential; when we deny ourselves some of the food we would like to eat, or abstain from specific things like meat and poultry. Times when we are asked to strengthen ourselves against evil inclinations by learning to control our innocent and legitimate desires.
In recent years, the law of the Church has gotten quite liberal about such things. We are required to fast on only a couple of days each year, and still required to abstain from meat on most of the Fridays of the year—but, for the most part the Church’s practices of fasting and abstinence are now traditions rather than laws.
But we men and women are rational creatures. The mere fact that we may no longer be required by law to do the things which are spiritually necessary for us does not mean that they are any less necessary. We are not required by law to put aside food or fuel for the winter; not required to have a heavy coat. Just as we would be foolish to do without such material preparations, we would be equally foolish to forget to prepare spiritually.
Traditionally, the Church has two great penitential seasons: the four weeks of Advent to prepare us for the birth of our Lord at Christmas; and the forty days of Lent to prepare use for Holy Week and Easter, the commemoration of our Lord’s sacrificial death on the Cross and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Advent and Lent are hard for even the casual Catholic to miss. Each Sunday the Masses are in purple vestments, and you will almost certainly hear sermons about fasting, abstinence, prayer, and self denial.
But Advent and Lent come only once a year, and it is prudent that we pay more frequent attention to our spiritual needs—and that in doing so we do a little bit more than just substituting pizza or seafood for the usual burgers and chops. To this end, many centuries ago, the Church instituted the Ember Days for each of the seasons of the year. As early as the pontificate of Pope Callistus, who was Pope from 217 until 222, the Church has marked the beginning of the seasons with some sort of public observance. The particular Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following certain specific feast days has been in use since the eleventh century pontificate of Pope Gregory VII.
The Ember Days are more than just days of prayer and fasting. Indeed, the readings at Mass often sound more like those of a feast. Each set of days is intended to thank God for the gifts of nature, and to implore his continued benevolence. Depending upon the season of the year, the days relate to the planting and the harvesting and the putting up of produce for later use. Even in a highly urban environment like ours, they serve to remind us of God’s natural bounty and the need of our prudent stewardship of what He has given over to the free use of mankind. Whether we live in the city or on a farm, the Ember days ought to remind us to use the gifts of the earth in moderation, and to be mindful of the needs of the poor.
Since the time of Pope Gelasius (492-496), the Ember Saturdays have also been the primary days on which men are ordained to Holy Orders. Thus, they should also be days of prayer for new vocations, for the holy and successful of those who are being ordained, and for the perseverance and enthusiasm for those who are currently serving as priests and bishops. It is not hard to see that a great deal of what ails the Church and society today is that many of our clergy have lost the zeal for goodness and holiness they had at ordination.
Once again, God created us with free will and intellect. We don’t act very much on instinct. But, as we see the days grow shorter, as we see the sun set earlier and farther to the south, as we welcome the birds of the air once again—let it be a reminder to us that it is once again time to thank God for His bounty and to ask Him not to "forget" us in the future.
The Ember days are days of fasting and abstinence, traditionally they are days without meat and poultry; days of one full meal and a couple of snacks; but above all they are days of prayer.
How can we keep God from “forgetting” us? Very simple: by making use of the opportunity we will have on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday to demonstrate that we have not forgotten Him.