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The Liturgical Year – Ember Wednesday of Advent

What are Ember Days?

Prope est jam Dominus;
venite, adoremus.
The Lord is now nigh;
come, let us adore.

To-day the Church begins the fast of Quatuor Tempora, or, as we call it, of Ember days: it includes also the Friday and Saturday of this same week. This observance is not peculiar to the Advent liturgy; it is one which has been fixed for each of the four seasons of the ecclesiastical 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.ยน 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 Rabanus Maurus, and of several other ancient Christian writers. It is remarkable, on the other hand, that the orientals 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 unfrequently used in the early writers, of the three times and not the four, we must remember that in the spring, these days always 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 intentions, which the Church has in the fast of the Ember days, are the same as those of the Synagogue; namely, to consecrate to God by penance the four seasons of the year. The Ember days of Advent are known, in ecclesiastical antiquity, as the fast of the tenth month ; and St. Leo, in one of his sermons on this fast, of which the Church has inserted a passage in the second nocturn of the third Sunday of Advent, tells us that a special fast was fixed for this time of the year, because the fruits of the earth had then all been gathered in, and that it behoved Christians to testify their gratitude to God by a sacrifice of abstinence, thus rendering themselves more worthy to approach to God, the more they were detached from the love of created things. ‘For fasting,' adds the holy doctor, ‘has ever been the nourishment of virtue. Abstinence is the source of chaste thoughts, of wise resolutions, and of salutary counsel. By voluntary mortifications, the flesh dies to its concupiscences, and the spirit is renewed in virtue. But since fasting alone is not sufficient whereby to secure the soul's salvation, let us add to it works of mercy towards the poor. Let us make that which we retrench from indulgence, serve unto the exercise of virtue. Let the abstinence of him that fasts, become the meal of the poor man.'

Let us, the children of the Church, practise what is in our power of these admonitions; and since the actual discipline of Advent is so very mild, let us be so much the more fervent in fulfilling the precept of the fast of the Ember days. By these few exercises which are now required of us, let us keep up within ourselves the zeal of our forefathers for this holy season of Advent. We must never forget that although the interior preparation is what is absolutely essential for our profiting by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, yet this preparation could scarcely be real unless it manifested itself by the exterior practices of religion and penance.

The fast of the Ember days has another object besides that of consecrating the four seasons of the year to God by an act of penance: it has also in view the ordination of the ministers of the Church, which takes place on the Saturday, and of which notice was formerly given to the people during the Mass of the Wednesday. In the Roman Church, the ordination held in the month of December was, for a long time, the most solemn of all; and it would appear, from the ancient chronicles of the Popes, that, excepting very extraordinary cases, the tenth month was, for several ages, the only time for conferring Holy Orders in Rome. The faithful should unite with the Church in this her intention, and offer to God their fasting and abstinence for the purpose of obtaining worthy ministers of the word and of the Sacraments, and true pastors of the people.

Annunciation by Campin
Annunciation by Campin

The Church does not read anything, in the Matins of to-day, from the prophet Isaias: she merely reads a sentence from the chapter of St. Luke, which gives our Lady's Annunciation, to which she subjoins a passage from St. Ambrose's Homily on that Gospel. The fact of this Gospel having been chosen for the Office and Mass of to-day, has made the Wednesday of the third week of Advent a very marked day in the calendar. In several ancient Ordinaries, used by many of the larger churches, both cathedral and abbatial, we find it prescribed that feasts falling on this Wednesday should be transferred: that the ferial prayers should not be said kneeling on that day; that the Gospel Missus est, that is, of the Annunciation, should be sung at Matins by the celebrant vested in a white cope, with cross, lights, and incense, the great bell tolling meanwhile; that in abbeys, the abbot should preach a homily to the monks, as on solemn feasts. We are indebted to this custom for the four magnificent sermons of St. Bernard on our blessed Lady, which are entitled: Super Missus est.

As the Mass of the Ember days is seldom sung, excepting in churches where the canonical Office is said, as also that we might not add unnecessarily to this volume, we have thought it advisable to omit the Masses of Ember Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Advent. The Station for the Wednesday is at St. Mary Major, on account of the Gospel of the Annunciation, which, as we have just seen, has caused this day to be looked upon as a real feast of the blessed Virgin.

Having to speak, later on, of this mystery, in the proper of saints, we will conclude this Wednesday with a prose of the middle ages, in honour of our blessed Lady's receiving the angel's salutation, and with a prayer taken from one of the ancient liturgies.

(Taken from the missal of Cluny of 1523.)

Angelus ad Virginem
Subintrans in conclavi,
Virginis formidinem
Demulcens, inquit ei:
Ave, Regina virginum,
Coeli terraeque Dominum
Concipies et paries,
Salutem hominum;
Tu porta coeli facta,
Medela criminum.Quomodo conciperem,
Quae virum non cognovi?
Qualiter infringerem
Quae firma mente vovi?Spiritus sancti gratia
Perficiet haec omnia:
Ne timeas, sed gaudeas,
Quod castimonia
Manebit in te pura,
Dei potentia.Ad haec Virgo nobilis
Respondens inquit ei:
Servula sum humilis
Omnipotentis Dei.
Tibi coelesti nuncio,
Tanti secreti conscio,
Consentiens, et cupiens
Factum quod audio,
Parata sum parere
Dei consilio.
Angelus disparuit,
Et statim puellaris
Uterus intumuit,
Vi partus virginalis.
Qui circumdatus utero,
Novem mensium numero,
Hinc exiit et iniit
Affigens humero crucem,
Quae dedit ictum
Hosti mortifero.
Eia! Mater Domini,
Quae pacem reddidisti
Angelo et homini,
Quando Christum genuisti;
Tuum exora Filium
Ut se nobis propitium
Exhibeat, et deleat
Praestans auxilium
Vita frui beata,
Post hoc exsilium. Amen.
The angel, entering the
Virgin's chamber, and gently
bidding her not to fear, says
to her:
Hail, Queen of virgins!
thou shalt conceive in thy
womb the Lord of heaven
and earth; and still remaining
a Virgin, thou shalt bring
forth the salvation of
mankind, O gate of heaven
bringing to the world the
remedy of its iniquities!
How shall this be, replied
the Virgin, for I know not
man? How wouldst thou
have me break the vow which
I have sworn to keep?
The grace of the Holy
Ghost shall accomplish all
these things, said the angel.
Fear not, but rejoice. I
assure thee thy virginity
shall be left intact: the
power of God shall maintain
To this the noble Virgin
answering, said to the angel:
I am the lowly handmaid of
the omnipotent God.
Consenting to thy word, 0
heavenly messenger, bearer
of so great a secret, and
desiring to see fulfilled what
thou announcest, I am ready
to obey the decree of God.
The angel left her, and in
that moment her virginal
womb conceived the Word
made flesh from hers.
This was his chosen
enclosure for nine months:
then he left it, and began the
great combat, carrying the
cross upon his shoulders,
wherewith he struck the
enemy who brought death
into the world.
0 dear Mother of Jesus, who
didst bring peace to angels
and to men by giving birth
to Christ,
Pray for us to this thy Son,
that he be merciful to us, and
forgive us our sins, and give
us his assistance, whereby,
after this exile, we may
possess the blessed joys of
eternal life. Amen.

(Second Sunday of Advent, Illatio)

Dignum et justum est;
vere aequum et salutare est,
Domini nostri Jesu Christi
adventum in mirabilibus
praedicare: quem inter homines
nasciturum coelestis nuntius
nunciavit. Virgo terrena dum
salutaretur audivit: Spiritus
sanctus in utero, dum veniret
creavit, ut Gabriele dicente,
Maria credente, Dei Verbo
Spiritu co-operante, sequeretur
salutationem angelicam
securitas, promissionem
perficeret veritas; ut Altissimi
obumbrante virtute,
didicisset se esse foecundam
virginitas. Ecce concipies in
utero, et paries filium, angelus
praedicavit; et: Quomodo
fiet istud, Maria respondit.
Sed quia haec credendo, non
dubitando respondit, implevit
Spiritus sanctus quod angelus
spopondit. Virgo ante
conceptum, Virgo semper
futura post partum, Deum
suum prius mente, dehinc
ventre concepit; salutem
mundi prima suscepit Virgo
plena gratia Dei, et ideo vera
Mater Filii Dei.
It is meet and just, truly
right and available to
salvation that we should
extol the coming of our Lord
Jesus Christ as one of the
highest of God's wonderful
A heavenly messenger
announced that he would be
born among men. A Virgin,
dwelling on this earth, was
saluted by the angel, and
heard the great mystery.
The Holy Ghost produced it
in the Virgin's womb, when
he came to her. So that
thus, Gabriel announcing,
Mary believing, and the Spirit
co-operating with the Word
of God, confidence followed
the angelical salutation, and
the promise was fulfilled by
the reality that the Virgin
should find herself to be made
a mother, by the power of
the Most High overshadowing
her. Behold, said the angel,
thou shalt conceive in thy
womb, and bring forth a Son.
How shall this be? answered
Mary. But because she said
it from faith, not from doubt,
the Holy Ghost accomplished
what the angel promised.
Virgin before the conception,
and Virgin after the birth of
her Son, she had received her
God in her soul, before
possessing him in her womb.
Virgin full of the grace of
God, she was the first to
receive the salvation of the
world, and therefore was
chosen to be the true Mother
of the Son of God.

One comment

  1. Please let me know when the The Parish Book of Chant is available. Thank you.

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