Advent, Ember Days

The Traditional Church encourages three days of fasting, abstinence and prayer this week, and these “Ember Days” happen four days a year with the change of seasons. (How do we fast? By abstaining from meat and eating only one full meal, with two snacks as needed, and replacing it with prayer.) Why fasting? Because it is an excellent teacher of preparation. And a change in season, if it is to go smoothly at all, requires preparation.

We all know this at a basic human level; simply watch our human actions as the seasons change. We almost subconsciously do things like “Spring Cleaning.” We put away summer clothes and beach towels to make room for sweaters, coats and boots. We watch stores empty their shelves so they can be re-filled with items for the next thing coming.

And so the Church encourages us to go deeper with what we already know by using the springboard of the physical to grasp the spiritual. Fasting is that springboard, using a physical trigger to encourage us to make room for the more important spiritual aspects of a Christian life. As I physically give things up, what is it that I spiritually need to give up?

Self-deception and manipulation of truth. As often as my body looks for snacks today, I can look for ways I have been justifying my own actions. What stories have I been feeding myself in order to do whatever I want to do? As I’ve learned over the years that I need to really read the ingredients on the package and make a conscious decision about whether a food is good for my body, I need to really examine each reason I come up with for doing something. Is it really good for my soul?

The demand to know the outcome. Some desire to know things is good – we must seek truth. But in the spiritual life, we can damage faith and hope by insisting on knowing how it will turn out before we commit. I used to demand to eat at certain times, lest I had to feel the slightest discomfort of hunger. If a restaurant even hinted at a long wait, I would leave. Practicing fasting has calmed unrealistic fears of physical starvation. But what does God say about the fear of starving my soul? “It is not given to you to know, but only to my Father,” and, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Repeating this truth each time my stomach complains is strengthening my trust in God.

The temptation to say, “What’s the use?” What is this, really, but an excuse not to do something? Fasting is difficult. Especially when the rest of the world seems to have chosen a different way of preparing for the change of seasons. That temptation is going to come, to say, “What’s the use?” and just give up. But actually, it’s an opportunity to ask that question honestly. What is the use of fasting? Here’s our chance to hold it up to the Light of Scripture and Tradition and answer as a Christian. In unity with Our Lord, right after we very humanly say, “Please take this chalice away,” we find strength to also say with Him, “Not my will, but Thine be done.

“Let these not be dismal ponderings, but rather part of our determination. Let us be fully alive, and ask ourselves, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ It is the only life I have, and I am determining my eternal life by the way I live my earthly life. What are the things that cannot enter eternity? Anything that is not the truth; anything that is not love. May we begin a pattern of jubilant rejection of the things that take us from the way, which lead us apart from the truth, and leave us not fully alive.”

Mother Mary Francis

And let us not lose the traditions that have kept the embers of Christianity burning in souls for thousands of years.

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