ON THE EMBER WEEK IN ADVENT
Consider first, that the ember weeks, at the four seasons of the year, are the times set aside by the church, from the earliest ages, for fasting and prayer. The primitive church had that zealous regard for the glory of God, and the sanctification of the souls of her children, by training them up to these religious exercises, so much recommended by the word of God, that she would not suffer any of the four parts of the year to pass, without calling upon them all to sanctify one week at least by more than ordinary devotion and by offering up to God therein the tribute of a penitential fast. In which she had also moreover in view, that by their diligence in this practice, her children might draw down a blessing from God on all their labours, and on the fruits of the earth; that they might give thanks for the blessings already received, and implore the divine mercy for the forgiveness of the sins they were continually committing. Christians, let us, at these holy times, enter into these views of our holy mother the church; and by joining, as it were, in a body with all the people of God upon earth, in fasting, in almsdeeds, and in humble prayer, make the best return we are able to the giver of all good gifts, for all his benefits; beg a continuance of his graces and blessings, and the pardon of all our sins, through the merits of the passion and death of his only Son our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Consider 2ndly, that these penitential fasts of the ember weeks are also instituted in order to turn away the judgments of God, which we have too great reason to apprehend may be hanging over our heads on account of our sins. For if we duly consider the multitude an enormity of the crimes that are daily and hourly committed amongst Christians of all degrees and conditions – crimes that continually cry to heaven for vengeance – and how few there are, in comparison, that are not frequently falling into mortal sin, in one shape or another; we cannot but fear lest the very worst of God’s judgments may be speedily falling upon Christendom, if not averted by prayer and penance. It is then not only a duty of obedience to our mother the Church, but a charity also that we owe both to ourselves and to our neighbours, to join, at these times, in prayer and penance, in order to prevent those dismal visitations of divine justice, and to turn now to the Lord, with our whole heart, in fasting, and weeping, and mourning, as the prophet admonishes, (Joel iii.,) that so by entering into dispositions of true penitents, and seriously turning away from the evil of our sins, we may prevail with our merciful God to turn away also his scourges from us, which we have deserved by our sins. O that Christians would remember this on all their days of fasting; and would always enter into the true spirit of these institutions, chiefly designed for the abolishing sin, and appeasing the divine justice! thus would they offer up to God such a fast as he has chosen. Thus would their fastings draw down a blessing from him.
Consider 3rdly, that the ember weeks are also set aside by the church of Christ for the times of giving Holy Orders, which by apostolical traditions, and by the example of the apostles, ought to be accompanied with prayer and fasting. Acts xiii. 2, 3; xiv. 22. Yes, Christians, as there is not any one thing on which both the general good of the whole church, and the welfare of every soul in particular, so much depends as upon having saints for our pastors, and such as may be men according to God’s own heart – who both by word and work may continually promote the glory of God and the salvation of souls – so there is not any one thing which more pressingly calls for our prayers and fasting than the obtaining such pastors from God. This should indeed have a great part in our devotions at all times, but more especially at these times of their ordination. Bad priest are sometimes permitted by God, as one of his most dreadful judgments upon the sins of the people. It is the business then of all Christians, by praying well, and living well, to avert this judgment, and to obtain better guides.
Conclude to labour by more than ordinary devotion and penance at these holy times, to answer all the ends of these ancient institutions. This ember week in particular, and all the latter parts of Advent, (that is twelve whole days before Christmas,) by an ancient custom of the primitive English church, was dedicated by our catholic ancestors to fasting, watchings, prayer, and alms; and all the faithful, at this time, betook themselves to confession and penance, in order to prepare themselves for a worthy participation of the body of the Lord on Christmas-day, as we learn from B. Egbert, who was Archbishop of York about a thousand years ago. (In Dialogo de Ecclesiastica Institutione.) O how much have we degenerated from this ancient piety!