Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Another Forgotten Fast

Yes, I know, feast days with edible eyeballs and churches made out of bones may be more exciting than fast days. But it's amazing to me that an ancient fast that was traditionally observed several times throughout the year has been all but wiped out in contemporary Catholicism. The traditional observance of Ember Days is a beautiful custom that I had never even heard of until very recently (as in last week).

As noted in this great post over at the New Liturgical Movement's blog, the Ember Days fast dates back to New Testament times. Like many feasts and fasts, Ember Days was originally intended as a tribute to the bounty of the Earth and the cycles of the seasons. They were traditionally held in the winter, spring, summer and autumn months. The winter Ember Days fall on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following the feast of Saint Lucy (December 13). The fasts repeat in Lent, after Pentecost and in September. As noted in the great text, "The Golden Legend," a bestseller of the medieval period that dates back to 1275:

"Then let us fast in March which is printemps for to repress the heat of the flesh boiling, and to quench luxury or to temper it. In summer we ought to fast to the end that we chastise the burning and ardour of avarice. In harvest for to repress the drought of pride, and in winter for to chastise the coldness of untruth and of malice." 

The three fast days this week are also characterized by special devotions: thanksgiving on Wednesday, repentance from sin on Friday and charity on Saturday. Interestingly, for all those readers who are familiar with the temperaments, the winter fast is also meant to purify the phlegmatic tendency, which was believed to be especially dominant in the winter months. Again, Jacobus de Voraigne phrases it perhaps most appropriately: "In winter we fast for to daunt and to make feeble the phlegm of lightness and forgetting, for such is he that is phlegmatic."

Now that I know about this fast I've found that there's actually quite a bit of literature on it. In fact, I encountered a passage in Sigrid Undset's series "The Master of Hestviken" just the other day that refers to it: 

"Some days after, he had business that took him inland, and Eirik was to accompany him as far as the church; it was a Wednesday in the ember days, and Sira Hallbjorn [a priest] insisted that all who could should attend church in the ember days." 

For readers who don't know, the books take place in medieval Norway and are rife with Catholic imagery and themes. I was so excited to find this reference to the Ember Days. Isn't it amazing that what was once a commonplace custom is now virtually unknown?

Anyway, although there may not be special recipes to mark these fast days, we can observe them with prayerfulness and our own attempts at mortification (although the medievals certainly have us beat when it comes to that as well...but that's another post). After all, what fun is feasting without fasting?

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