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Catholic Culture Resources

Catholic Prayer: Brief Meditations on the Church Year: Fall Ember Days


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Three meditations on the liturgy from the Extraordinary Form for each of the Ember Days in September.

Written by Monsignor Martin B. Hellriegel, originally published in the journal Orate Fratres Vol. XVIII, September 3, 1944, No. 10, pp. 438-441, later reprinted in Vine and Branches, Pio Decimo Press, 1948.

These meditations are attached to the 1962 Missal. The current lectionary has different readings and prayers not specific to the Ember Days.


Fall Ember Days

Station "With Saint Mary Major"

In pity renew our strength which by its nature is ever failing (Collect).

The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after September 14th (the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) are the Church's autumn ember days on which the Lord, as on the other ember days throughout the year, offers the remedies of His mercy to uphold our weakness" (Collect).

These September ember days are inspired by the Jewish solemnities of the "seventh month" (September): 1) the feast of the New Moon on the first day, 2) the day of Atonement on the tenth, and 3) the feast of the Tabernacles between the nineteenth and twenty-first. On the first feast the law of Moses was read to the people. "And Esdras the scribe stood upon a step of wood, which he made to speak upon. And he opened the book before all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he had opened it, all the people stood...and all the people answered: Amen, Amen, lifting up their hands, and they bowed down and adored God with their faces to the ground" (2nd lesson). On the second the highpriest carried the blood of the sacrificed animals into the Holy of Holies and poured it out before the Ark in atonement for his sins and for those of the people. On the third the people joyfully thanked God for the garnered harvest of fruit and wine and gratefully recalled Israel's living in tents (tabernacles) during their forty years' sojourning from the slavery of Egypt to the land which the Lord had given them (1st lesson).

As the feasts of the "seventh month" were for the Jews, so these September ember days must be for us days of spiritual renewal and deepening. They must be days 1) of re-orientation in the "new law" of Christ; 2) of atonement through prayer and fasts, and above all, through the pouring out before the Ark of divine mercy of the eucharistic blood of the Lamb of God for the sins committed since Pentecost by ourselves and our brethren; and 3) of thanksgiving for the fruits of the field and the fruits of the Holy Spirit which God in His mercy bestowed upon us during the past three months. "Jesus, taking him by the hand, lifted him up and he arose" (gospel). That expresses the main purpose of the ember days. Their sacramental power coupled with our cheerful cooperation will achieve that end.

We humbly ask today's great patroness, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to obtain for us a true ember spirit and to accompany us as we approach the holy Table "(1) to eat fat meats, (2) and drink sweet wine, and (3) send portions to them that have not prepared for themselves; because it is the holy (ember) day of the Lord; be not sad, for the joy of the Lord is our strength" (communion).

Station "With the Twelve Apostles"

Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? (Epistle)

The Church leads us today to the "the twelve apostles," on whom the Lord conferred His power to forgive and retain sins. Bearers they are of those precious keys that open the merciful heart of God as well as the contrite heart of man, uniting the latter to the former by means of the cleansing and sanctifying blood of Jesus Christ.

Formerly the reconciliation of penitents on Maundy Thursday took place in this stational church of "the twelve apostles." Here sinners who had undergone their prescribed course of penance were granted on that day the remission of all their sins and were admitted once more to full participation in the eucharistic Banquet. "Ex-communication" was turned into "Communication" by the keys which the Lord had placed in the hands of His apostles and, through them, in the hands of His Church.

With the penitential spirit of the penitents of old, and with the sorrow and humility of Mary Magdalen (gospel), let us keep this ember Friday. Often do we commit sins, but how often do we perform penance for them? "Return, O Israel, to the Lord thy God; for thou hast fallen down by thy iniquity" (epistle). No the "Assyria" of worldly achievements, nor the high "horses" of worldly ambitions, nor the "gods"--money, position, human applaus--"the works of our hands shall save us" (epistle), but penance, faith and love. "Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much. Thy faith hath made thee safe; go in peace" (gospel).

This is a day of fast and abstinence. Let us gladly observe both. Let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord and be strengthened; seek His face ever more (introit). This ember Friday is an appropriate occasion for giving our weekly "Friday-abstinence" a new spirit. So often we observe the day thoughtlessly--perhaps even reluctantly. On the Great Friday the Good Shepherd gave up His flesh and blood for His sheep. In gratitude for such love His sheep give up every Friday flesh-meats for their Good Shepherd. Observing abstinence in that spirit will gladden both the Good Shepherd and His sheep; will make us "bring forth fruits worthy of penance"; will widen and deepen the spirit of repentance to the end that "the gifts of our fasting will be pleasing in God’s sight, and atoning for our sins will make us worthy of God's grace and lead us to the eternal happiness promised by Him" (secret).

Give your soul a new direction by a fruitful "ember confession." The more humility and sorrow we carry into the confessional, the more peace and joy we shall carry out therefrom. The sacrament of penance is the sacrament of liberty which frees us from the disgracing chains of our sins. Nothing approaches innocence more closely than a courageous, sincere confession of our guilt. True humility and sorrow are oil from the Holy Spirit which make the "keys of forgiveness" turn with heavenly smoothness. "Remove from me reproach and contempt, because I have sought out Thy commandments, O Lord; for They testimonies are my meditation" (communion).

"Who is wise, and he shall understand these things?"

Station "With St. Peter"

And all the people rejoiced for all the things that were gloriously done by Him (Gospel).

"Let us fast on Wednesday and Friday, and on Saturday let us celebrate the vigil at the tomb of blessed Peter the Apostle, by whose merits and prayers we believe that we shall be aided, so that we may please our merciful God by our fast and prayer." That was the announcement made by the Great Leo to the holy people of God fifteen centuries ago. That is the program for Christ’s flock of today. "Let us celebrate the vigil at the tomb of blessed Peter"!

This ember vigil, like all other vigils, was held at night and ended at daybreak with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the mystery of "Light and Life" (phos-zoe). "Watching, prayer, fast, sorrow for past transgressions, resolutions for the future, conferring of holy orders, offering of grapes (wine), and the climax, the eucharistic Banquet, were the eight milestones on this nocturnal journey."

The time for this ember vigil has been changed, but its spirit is changeless. One of the reasons why so many "fig-trees" in the vineyard of the Church have become barren, why so many Christians are "bowed together," like the crippled woman in today’s gospel, unable to look upwards at all, is that they have passed up so often these grace-laden, vitalizing ember days. These ember days are meant to make us "stop, look, listen," so that when crossing the tracks form time into eternity, we may not be injured or killed by the enemies of our supernatural life. "Grant unto us, O Lord, that by fasting we may be filled with Thy grace, and by abstaining may become strong above all our enemies" (2nd Collect).

Yes, "stop, look, listen," for the sake of our own renewals; for the spiritual progress of our brethren; for the young men who will be ordained today, that they may become zealous laborers in the Lord's vineyard; for the poor, to whom belongs what we are saving through our ember fast; for the altar which today is to receive our gifts. (In former days the Christian flock brought to God's altar: On Pentecost Saturday, wheat (bread); on September ember Saturday, grapes (wine); on December ember Saturday, olives (oil).)

"Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? Prudent, and he shall know these things? For the ways of the Lord are right and the just shall walk in them, but the transgressors shall fall in them" (ember Friday), shall become barren trees in the vineyard of the Church, crippled members in the Mystical Body.

Let us in spirit kneel at the tomb of blessed Peter, asking the pastor of "the lambs and sheep," the "rock" on whom rests every living stone of the Church, the vicar of that glorious Highpriest (epistle) who with His precious blood made us a chosen generation and kingly priesthood, to come to our assistance that we may profitably keep this sacred vigil, i.e., "watch and pray, that we enter not into temptation"!

St. Peter, bless all those who in these days will become Thy co-workers through the reception of the sacrament of holy orders. Lead us all closer to "Christ, the Son of the living God," the wellspring of all justice and holiness of life.

"And all the people rejoiced for all the things that were gloriously done by Him" (Gospel).

Prayer Source: Orate Fratres/Worship: A Review Devoted to the Liturgical Apostolate , The Liturgical Press