Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent and Ember Days in "Merrie Olde Englande"

In the Catholic Church in the Latin Rite today, Advent is emphasized as a time of waiting, preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ--in the future and in history. There are some elements of penitence: vestments are purple; we do not sing the Gloria at Sunday Masses; we hear often about the counter-cultural nature of Advent as we wait to celebrate Christmas and then celebrate Christmas for a season and not just a day. That's the position of Advent overall. [Note that Eastern Rite Catholics observe a more penitential season of fasting and abstinence, the Nativity Fast or the Fast of St. Philip.]

Before the English Reformation, Advent was a season of penitence and fasting--except I suppose where the Boy Bishop handed out treats and declared holidays from December 6 to December 29!!--preparing for the feast of Christmas with its joyous celebration. There were no marriages during the season of Advent (or of Lent) and the Ember Days , the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Gaudete Sunday, were days of fasting and abstinence. There are also Ember Days observed during Lent, after Pentecost, and after the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross in September, thus the illustration above that represents those seasons.

As Christmas was one of the great feasts of the year when the laity would receive Holy Communion, parishioners prepared by receiving the Sacrament of Penance, examining their consciences, confessing their sins, and fulfilling the penance given by the priest. That is something parishes in our diocese maintain--the deaneries plan penance services before Christmas as they do before Easter.

As Eamon Duffy comments in both The Stripping of the Altars and The Voices of Morebath, the seasons and feasts of the Church year were integrated parts of the social and personal life of Catholic Christians in England before the English Reformations of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. They provided order and remembrance; most events would be dated by a religious date: a child was born two days after Michaelmas; a couple were married five days after Christmas; a father died on the eve of Candlemas. (Wouldn't help much to use the movable feasts of Easter and Pentecost!)

The feasts and seasons provided a pattern of work and rest, fasting and feasting, life and death. They were connected to the seasons and rhythm of events in the natural world, planting and harvesting, preparing and gathering. That pattern is certainly something lost after the Reformation Parliament. And of course now, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, "Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;/ And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;/And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil/Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod." We are often too separated from the rhythms of nature as we pursue worldly, work-a-day ends. I don't live in a big city, but I have never really experienced a close connection to the land and nature in a rural life. Fortunately, we still have these liturgical seasons to remind us of reality. Or, as Hopkins said much better than I:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Image Source.

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