"Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrod, and Lucie."
The Old Testament reading for this past Sunday was about Isaiah’s call to prophecy. He experienced a vision where seraphim said the Sanctus around the Lord’s throne. Isaiah feels doomed, because he is a man, a sinner, unworthy to be a witness to the beatific vision. It is too clean, too pure, and too bright for him. As wonderful as it is, he knows he can’t be there. But then a seraphim takes an ember from the altar and presses it against Isaiah’s lips. This removes his sin and makes his lips pure to preach the message from God.
Firstly, the story shows humans’ unworthiness to enter heaven. We are unclean, but we can be made clean again. And it is not necessarily a tidy process; it might burn. Fire is cleansing. We are not just washed clean, but purified all the way through.
Secondly, it is fitting that Isaiah’s story is this week, as the first week of Lent includes an embertide. Embertide, or ember days, are days of particular prayer and fasting and occur four times a year. It is a Western church tradition that developed between the fourth and sixth centuries. It became an official Church tradition under Pope Gregory VII, who declared them Quatuor Tempora, the Four Times. Ember days occur the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the first Sunday of Lent, Whitsunday (Pentecost), Feast of the Holy Cross, and the first Sunday of Advent. Those days of the week traditionally are fasting days because they were the day of Jesus’ betrayal, death, and decent into hell.
After 1969, Catholics were no longer obligated to fast on ember days. The same for Anglicans after 1976. I think that’s rather sad; the Eastern church fasts much more often and with stricter rules than the West. Ember days were a fasting tradition that the West had all to itself, and yet it has been pushed aside. I think an extra 12 days a year (beyond our current two) would do the Church well. I seriously doubt that a seraphim is going to descend with an ember from the altar to purge my lips. But I can participate in the grace I’m given. By fasting and praying, I can ready my soul for purification.
Despite its sometimes stately power, Christianity is a religion of the poor. It promotes the worth and dignity of each person and shuns the entrapments of earthly power, wealth, and significance. Pope Francis said, “Lent is a fitting time for self-denial. We would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.” People commonly give up something for Lent. But what is the point of giving up something, or of fasting, or of self-denial? How does my poverty actually enrich others?
First, it breaks us out of our daily habit. Giving up chocolate or coffee seems trivial, until you experience cravings and find yourself reaching out for that comfort throughout the day. You realize how dependent you have become and how privileged you are. You see the poor around you, the ones who have less and suffer more. It opens your eyes to what needs to be done. Second, you have more resources to share with the needy. Be it money saved from not purchasing that drink, or time saved from not playing that video game, you now have something extra to offer—money to a food bank or volunteer time to a homeless shelter. Fasting is not just about avoiding certain foods but about living a more simple, focused life.
Third, each time you remind yourself, “don’t do that” you also remind yourself why. You turn a mindless habit into a reflection of faith. I’m fasting today, why? Because Christ was tempted in the desert. Because Christ was turned out from his hometown. Because Christ was betrayed. Because Christ suffered torture. Because Christ died. In just a bit of discomfort, I am turning to Christ, trying to meagerly share in his suffering.
It seems counterintuitive to engage in an uncomfortable activity. Isn’t the world uncomfortable enough? Yet to me, it is like a training exercise; a small amount of suffering prepares me for when real suffering occurs. I learn that I can make it through, that faith doesn’t wane when comfort does. In something as simple as Lent or fasting, I remember that life is not about comfort. It is a trial, an ordeal, a preparation. It is temporary discomfort itself, for the sake of a better afterward. Spiritual enrichment emerges from pain. It is not about being burnt, but being forged into something pure and strong. Isaiah had an ember pressed into his lips so that his lips might be worthy of the Truth. Might a few days of fasting forge me in a similar way.