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Wednesday, first week of Lent

February 24, 2010

Blessed Wednesday!

Today is the beginning of the spring Ember Days! And no, “ember” in this case has nothing to do with fire. There are conflicting explanations of the origin & meaning of the word in this context, but they all have to do with the four seasons.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts:
The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth,
and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth
shall be to the house of Judah, joy, and gladness,
and great solemnities: only love ye truth and peace.”
-Zachariah 8:19

The Ember Days are times of prayer, fasting and partial abstinence at the beginning of each of the four seasons–the consecutive Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after Ash Wednesday, after Pentecost, after the Exaltation of the Cross (Sept. 14) & after St. Lucy (Dec. 13). One memory aid was the phrase “ashes, dove, cross, Lucy”. They were definitely arranged and prescribed for the universal Church by Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), but the practise of setting aside days to sanctify the seasons goes back to the Early Church–Pope Leo the Great (440-461) said that it went back to the Apostles themselves. The partial abstinence means that meat was only taken at one meal of the day on Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays (Fridays are already meatless).

Wednesday and Friday were selected because these were the days of penance observed by the Early Church in place of the Jewish practise of fasting on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Christians fasted on Wednesdays (the day Christ was betrayed) and Fridays (in honor of Good Friday). Saturdays were added as the culmination of the Ember week, with a procession to St. Peter’s in Rome and an all-night vigil.

The Ember Days are meant to sanctify each season as it arrives. The purpose of these days of fasting, abstinence and almsgiving, besides the general one intended by all prayer and fasting, was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy. They are seasonal “days of recollection”, or spiritual renewal, as well as days to ask God to bless the fruits of the earth and to thank Him for the blessings He has provided. They give us time to reflect on the beauty of the seasons and what they can teach us about God and Heaven. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that “the beauty of spring, the brightness of summer, the plenty of autumn, the rest of winter” are foreshadowings of the wonders of our eternal home.

Ordinations came to be held during the Ember days, so Ember Days are also good times to pray for vocations and for priests. In this Year of the Priest, they take on special significance!

The Saturday of the Ember Days is the most important–at one time an all night vigil was held at the end of the Ember Days from Saturday night to the following Sunday morning.

With the revision of the liturgical calendar in 1969, the Vatican left the celebration of Ember Days up to the discretion of each national conference of bishops. In the United States, the bishops’ conference has decided not to celebrate them, but many dioceses around the world still do. Even in the U.S., individual Catholics, a number of Religious orders and most Latin Mass organizations still observe the Ember Days. Our diocese has a remnant of the Lenten Ember days–this Friday (Ember Friday) is a Day of Prayer and Penance for Diocesan and Universal Church needs.

Lord, look upon us and hear our prayer.
By the good works You inspire,
help us to discipline our bodies
and to be renewed in spirit.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever. Amen

Jonah 3:1-10 (God forgave the Ninevites, who repented on hearing Jonah preach)
Psalm 51:3-19 “A broken, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn”
+Luke 11:29-32 (Jesus is greater than Jonah–so repent!)

“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed” (Jonah 3:4)

We think we’ve got it rough! This wasn’t a threat or a challenge. It was simply an announcement–and the announcer dearly wanted it to happen! (see Jonah 4:2) “Just so you know, you’re toast. You’ve got 40 days to anticipate the worst.”

Forty days, huh? What would they do with those forty days…

They could go into denial. Who is this stranger to come in here and threaten us like that, anyway?! Silence him! He’s disturbing the peace. Nineveh destroyed–preposterous!…but the Ninevites could look into their own hearts and confirm the sentence. It was not undeserved. God had told Jonah, “Set out for the great city of Nineveh and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2, emphasis added). They had done evil, and they knew it (Nineveh was in modern-day Iraq, if that puts anything in perspective…). They had every reason to expect judgment.

So do we. God has said very clearly, “None is righteous, no, not one…All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10, 23). That’s us.

Well, they could try to escape. Run off somewhere and hide. The trouble is, there’s nowhere to hide from God. “Where can I go from Your Spirit?…If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I sink to the nether world, You are Present there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there Your hand shall guide me…If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall hide me’…For You darkness itself is not dark” (Psalm 139:7,8-10, 11, 12). No point trying that

What about living it up? Turn the whole city into one big party and squeeze every last ounce of pleasure out of these forty days that we can. It’s our last chance, after all. If there’s no hope, why not?

…but what if there is hope? What if this God has a Heart big enough to take in even such scum as they if they appeal to Him? “Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold His blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish” (Jonah 3:9).

That’s the gamble the Ninevites took. They took their last chance to please themselves and spent it in a desperate attempt to please God instead (double or nothing, you might say). They proclaimed a fast (even the animals fasted!), put on sackcloth, sat in ashes, called loudly on God and turned from their wicked ways…and God spared them (to Jonah’s disgust). “A heart contrite and humbled, O God, You will not spurn” (Psalm 51:19).

In a sense, Jonah’s announcement came true.
In forty days, wicked Nineveh was no more–because its citizens turned it into holy Nineveh!

So what about us? We, too, have forty days. How are we going to spend it?

“At the judgment, the citizens of Nineveh will rise along with the present generation, and they will condemn it. For at the preaching of Jonah they reformed, but you have a greater than Jonah here” (Luke 11:32). Not only is Jesus greater than Jonah, but He spent three days in the belly of the earth (as Jonah spent three days in the belly of the great fish) in order to guarantee our forgiveness if only we repent! It’s no gamble for us! We have His Word!

We’ve already received ashes on our foreheads as a physical reminder that our bodies will one day return to the dust from which they were made. All earthly pleasures will turn to ashes. Only the things we do for God will last; only they will truly fulfill us. That truth needs to impact our choices…

We’ve proclaimed a fast. There’s nothing like a rumbling stomach & rumbling desires (our version of fasting animals–St. Francis called his body “Brother Ass”) to call loudly on the Lord!

Sackcloth isn’t very common nowadays, but throughout history the saints have made sacrifices by the clothing they wore, choosing simple or uncomfortable clothes (such as hair shirts under their regular clothes). There are ways we could do that.

Finally, and most importantly, we have repenting to do. Whether big or small, there are things in our lives–choices, habits, attitudes–that aren’t worthy of us. They need to change. Without that change, no amount of ashes, sackcloth or fasting will do any good. “You are not pleased with sacrifices; should I offer a holocaust, You would not accept it. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, You will not spurn” (Psalm 51:18-19).

If we use our forty days as well as the Ninevites used theirs,
Jonah’s announcement will come true for us as well.
Our old selves will be no more.
God’s power will make us holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our lives (see Luke 1:75).

Yours in forty days of hope,

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