Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quatember: The Forgotten Month

Once again the Church enters into her seasonal days of fast. The winter Ember Days are upon us.

Sort of.

In the Ember Days we discover one of the oddest ecclesiastical situations to have arisen since Vatican II, and more especially since 2007, when Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum basically established an ordinary and an extraordinary calendar for the Latin church. Many Catholics with a preference for the extraordinary form of the liturgy still fast during these four sets of three days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) placed regularly through the year. This custom persists due to a sense of tradition rather than any obligation or legal norm. Since Ash Wednesday of 1966, the only universally obligatory days of fast are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Ecclesiastical laws that do not directly affect the celebration of the liturgy do not change depending on which form of the Mass one prefers.

Admittedly it seems appropriate to fast on these days if one is to observe them at all, for this is their basic focus as well as their origin. In the so-called Leonine so-called Sacramentary, a collection of early medieval Roman liturgical texts, three Ember times are known as the fasts of the sixth, ninth, and twelfth months. The fourth would presumably be the fast of the third month, except that that section of the manuscript is missing. (The word Ember is derived from the Latin phrase quattuor tempora, simply meaning four times.) The other main associations throughout history have been with agricultural produce and priestly ordination, which are in themselves not unrelated topics.

In any case, this is where the oddity arises. Since the Ember Days are still fully present in the 1962 Roman Missal, those who celebrate the extraordinary form are used to their presence and more or less take it for granted. Since there are no Ember Days in the 1969 calendar, people who only know the Church since that time (which is a fairly large proportion of the Church) likely do not even know that seasonal fasting times were a part of ecclesial practice until very recently. 1969, despite all appearances, is only 45 years ago, a minute portion of the Church’s existence.

The oddity is compounded by the fact that Ember Days are pretty much still supposed to exist, in the ordinary form no less than the extraordinary. Speaking of the Ember Days in a 1969 document outlining the way the calendar was supposed to work, the Congregation for Divine Worship instructed episcopal conferences to “arrange the time and plan for their celebration.” To my knowledge the USCCB has never done such a thing.

Thus, while they could put the Ember Days wherever they wanted, I think the best idea is for a re-introduction of the traditional seasonal fasts to the ordinary form of the liturgy, along with the obligation of fasting. Happily, this introduction could be done gradually, perhaps introducing one Ember period at first, and then increasing the number when such a course is deemed prudent. Part of this new iteration can be to pray for vocations, such an important intention especially today. The Church needs priests. She also needs fasting, structure, and an awareness of time, history, and the fruits of the earth, and the Ember tradition provides all these and more.

Note: The title of this post is drawn from the fact that the German word for Ember Days is Quatembertage, again derived from Quattuor Tempora. Clearly, Quatember is not and was never a month (it only has twelve days, after all), but it makes a catchy title.  

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