The calendar of the ancient world followed closely the changing of seasons: the plantings of spring and the harvestings of autumn, the brilliance of summer and the gloom of winter. What started as an agricultural schedule has gradually evolved into a religious and sacramental time frame. Plantings were seasons of great hope. The generous scattering of seed in early spring, early summer and again in early autumn held the promise of abundant crops as these milder seasons matured. Abundant spring, summer and autumn harvests were consequently occasions of boundless satisfaction, intense thanksgiving and great rejoicing. The hope of the planting seasons and the gratitude of the harvest times along with the patient endurance demanded by winter have been reflected annually in the Church’s liturgical calendar.
For many centuries Ember Days were three days of periodic prayer, fasting and abstinence marked by the Catholic faithful corresponding to the change of seasons experienced by farmers and shepherds. Spring, summer, autumn and winter were introduced by the blessing of fields to thank God for the gifts of the environment, to teach the faithful to make wise use of crops and flocks and to assist the needy when nature happily bore fruit. The old Latin expression — “Post Crux, post Lux, post Cineres, post Chrisma,” meaning “after Cross, after Lucy, after Ashes, after Chrism” — roughly indicates when the ember days will occur: after the feast of the Holy Cross (9/14), after the feast of St. Lucy (12/13), after Ash Wednesday and after Pentecost. And just to complicate matters, Rogation Days or “asking days” were celebrated in April and May, again to beg God’s blessing on crops and flocks. Since commerce has clearly supplanted agriculture as the occupation of many believers, the observance of Ember days has receded, in fact, has almost disappeared. But the principle remains. Catholic liturgical observances are quite seasonal.
It is no accident that Jesus rose from the dead in the springtime. The realization of new life from flocks and crops, the guarantee of longer days from the sun and gentler breezes from mild weather are nature’s backdrop framing the miraculous and supernatural event of the Resurrection. The opened grave graphically prepares the believer for a new life, a new hope and a new promise; it is a humble token of the spiritual life, eternal hope and heavenly promise displayed by Christ’s return from the dead. And it is certainly no accident that the birth of Christ, the arrival of the Son of God into time, the descent of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity into history, is celebrated in mid-winter when the dark days of early December yield to the lengthening days of late December. The light of the natural world — the returning sun — foretells the arrival of the light of the supernatural world — Jesus, indeed, the very “light of the world” himself.
Notice how in this Sunday’s first reading the prophet Isaiah seizes on natural imagery to convey the fruitfulness of God’s anticipated grace: “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.” The glory of God is generously reflected in the bounty of nature. In the second reading St. Paul for his part also invokes the cycles of agriculture to illustrate the preparation the believer who awaits Christ must endure: “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
The resurrection of Christ in the springtime and the birth of Christ in the wintertime are so religiously significant that both seasonal observances demand a fitting spiritual preparation, as St. Paul notes above. Hence the forty days of Lent prime the believer to appreciate more deeply the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. And the four weeks of Advent similarly groom the faithful to grasp more profoundly the arrival of Christ into human history at Christmas. Advent suggests the long centuries the Jews awaited the Savior. Advent reminds all of the docility of Mary and the compliance of Joseph. Advent evokes the Baptist’s primary role of introducing Christ to the world. Advent sparks openness, repentance, conversion, and readiness in the believing soul as the arrival (advent) of the Son of God dawns upon a hibernating humanity. The cycles of nature and the cycles of the Church’s liturgical year are perennial occasions for renewal and enrichment for both body and soul.
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