Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ember Saturday

Yesterday (Saturday) I had to work 1st shift, so I didn't make it to Mass. Not that this makes up for missing Mass, but one nice thing about my Saturday was that after I got off work, I made it back to our neighborhood to catch the full second half of the Christmas show that Lil Rev & Frogwater do at Alterra each December. Yes, the very Jewish Lil Rev does Christmas songs...and I enjoy the way he does them. Don't try to figure it out. Just face the fact that there is a deacon out there somewhere who is just as strange, if not stranger, than you are. Admittedly, the final song of the set was Jingle Bells, with the "batman" stanza. And we all sang along.

Anyway, I did want to say something about the Ember Saturday Mass. For it is a beautiful and rich liturgy, as any of you who were able to attend this year will attest. Next time you get the chance to go to Mass on Ember Saturday, and I have in mind here any Ember Saturday, do grab the opportunity. They take place four times each year, namely, the Saturday of the Ember Week in Advent, the Saturday of Ember Week in Lent, the Saturday in the Pentecost Octave (also called Whit-Saturday), and the Saturday of the Ember Week in September. By the way, why do I speak of the "Saturday of Ember Week" instead of simply saying, for example, the Saturday after Saint Lucy's Day? This is because the Ember Days, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, must be successive and in that order, ie., of the same week. Therefore, eg., if St. Lucy's Day be on a Thursday, the Advent Ember days that year are not until the next week. So one must either 1. remember that the ember days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, in that order, following St. Lucy's Day, the First Sunday in Lent, Pentecost, and the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, or 2. consult a good calendar.

Anyway, while there is value in considering what Ember Days in general have in common, and what the ember days of a particular season have in common with each other, I suggest that there is also value in considering the common traits that the ember days of a particular day of the week have in common with each other, regardless of the season. A great example of this is how the Ember Saturdays of all four seasons are alike. Each time an Embertide comes around, notice that the Ember Days sort of build one day to the next, until they climax with the Ember Saturday.

Some pastors who are new to the practice of the Ember Days will look at the traditional rubrics, and conclude that there must be a mistake here. There can't really be seven readings at an obscure Saturday Mass. Surely some of them are alternative, or optional readings. Perhaps the reason for this problem of perception is that many Lutherans have got themselves too used to the modern liturgical tendency for liturgical orders to have built-in options. Or perhaps the reason is that modern Lutherans have got themselves so used to the practice of having exactly three readings at Mass, an Old Testament lesson, an Epistle lesson, and a Gospel, that when they see a set of propers with a number of lessons greater or less than three, they think that there must be something amiss. In fact, as I mentioned the other day, when you hear three lessons on Ember Wednesday, that itself is unusual in traditional Western use. For traditional liturgical practice will not tend to have three lessons at Mass, like the modern rites do, but two lessons, usually an Epistle, and then of course the Gospel. In like manner, on Ember Saturday you will hear seven readings, which are all meant to be heard. The reason these masses have more lessons than usual is, first, they are vestiges of the liturgical practice of the early church, when there was more scripture read, especially from the Old Testament, and second, that the Ember Days in particular are days specially set aside for us to let the Word of God speak to us, and come and dwell with us in a richer way than usual. For if we are to pray and fast, two special emphases of ember days, we must first feed upon the Word.

Now, to be even more specific, the Ember Saturday has a full seven lessons, and a canticle, which for good reasons makes one think of the famous Paschal Vigil Mass, or the Pentecost Vigil Mass, which also have several readings. (They actually have twelve lessons, beside the Epistle and Gospel.) Indeed, there is a quasivigil quality about the Ember Saturday Mass. That is for good reason, namely, they were vigil Masses once upon a time, kept in the evening, and climaxing with the rite of holy Ordination. All four Ember Saturdays have seven lessons, plus a canticle.

It is true that the Ember Saturday on Whit-Saturday does not seem to fully conform to this pattern, since it has no canticle. Yet if one looks closely, it becomes clear that after the lesson from Daniel 3, the choir immediately chants the alleluia verse, and that verse is actually the next verse in scripture that follows the Daniel 3 reading, in other words, it is a short version of the canticle heard at that point on the other Ember Saturdays.

The readings culminate with the Gospel from Luke 3, telling us of the Forerunner's Divine Call to preach the Baptism of repentance. And this pericope culminates with the words, "et videbit omnis caro salutare Dei." And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. In the classic Roman Rite this is the same Gospel one hears again the next day. The classic Lutheran rite, so organically close to the Roman Rite, has a slightly different configuration for Advent, and yet the Gospel for Advent IV, from John 1, remains focused on the Forerunner, and both end up pointing us to the Christ. In the Luke 3 text, we may as well capitalize "salvation" at the end of the reading, and we will see how this Gospel, like the O Antiphons when read as reverse acrostic, preach to us the good news that our Redemption draws near. So whichever Gospel one gets at the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Ember Saturday Gospel stands as a brilliant beacon, illuminating our way to the completion of our Advent fast.

With such a vigil-like character to these masses, even if they take place in the morning, let us take them as the Church's call for us to watch with Christ. Let us wait for Him, in prayer and supplication, in repentance and prayer, in faith, hope, and indeed, with bridal care, let us prepare our hearts for His visitation, by His Word, by His Holy Supper, in celebration of His holy birth, and in expectation of His glorious advent to judge the world and finally and fully unite Himself with us forever.

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