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Wednesday, First Week of Lent

March 16, 2011

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.

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
(Opening Prayer for today’s Mass)

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!)

Who knows, God may relent and forgive,
and withhold His blazing wrath so that we shall not perish
-Jonah 3:9

It’s really not that nebulous.
If God hadn’t been so motivated to spare Nineveh
He never would’ve gone to so much trouble
to send such a reluctant prophet there is the first place!
But one way or another, wicked Nineveh had to go.
It could either become holy Nineveh, or cease to be.

Much the same was true in Jesus’ day.

This is an evil age
-Luke 11:29

If God had merely wanted rid of them,
He could’ve simply stopped holding them in being…
and they would’ve ceased to exist.
He didn’t have to go through all the trouble of leaving the peace and joy of Heaven
to become their whipping-boy.
But one way or another, the evil age had to go.
It could either become holy…or be destroyed.

Our own age–and each of us–is in much the same boat.
God’s very motivated to spare us.
But evil has got to go.

God wants to forgive. He yearns to forgive!
But forgiveness is not the approval of evil.
Forgiveness is the restoration of a person who has rejected evil.
Without that change of heart, without repentance, God cannot forgive.

That is the power He has placed in our hands.
We can refuse His forgiveness by refusing to change.

The good news is that we have the power to repent!
And it’s not a gamble–“Who knows, God may relent” (Jonah 3:9).
No, if we repudiate our sins and turn to God, asking Him for forgiveness,
He will forgive.
Repentance opens the floodgates of the dam that’s holding His mercy at bay.

That’s what happened in Nineveh.
That’s what happened to every person who cast off their sins to follow Jesus in His day.
That’s what happens every time a penitent steps into the confessional today.

At the same time, we must also remember that when Nineveh returned to its wicked ways,
it was destroyed (see Tobit 14:4, 15).
And 40 years after Jesus began preaching repentance
Jerusalem was leveled by the Roman army (see Josephus, The Wars of the Jews).
(the Christians, heeding Jesus’ warning, had all fled the city before disaster struck).
One way or another, evil has got to go.

Nineveh had forty days.
So do we.
Let’s use them as well they did…
with the assurance that as we allow God to make us holy,
He will forgive.

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