Advent 2021: Fasting, Ember Days and Reparation of Sins

Advent Ember Days of 2021 are Dec. 15, Dec. 17, and Dec. 18.

An ‘Ember Day’ pie, from a 14th-century English recipe found in the John Rylands Library in Manchester.
An ‘Ember Day’ pie, from a 14th-century English recipe found in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. (photo: Richard Symonds / CC BY 3.0)

(Editor's Note: This post has been updated since originally being published in December 2018 to reflect the latest Ember Day schedule.)

One of my fondest memories about Islam, admittedly one of the very few, was waking before sunrise to eat with my mom during Ramadan. I was very young, six or seven, but I looked forward to the dark mornings when the house smelled of freshly steeped tea. In the quiet of the night, we ate our tahini bread and drank our tea. Until sun down, there would be no food and no drinks —not even a glass of water or a piece of gum. Even though often fasting all day brought out the worst in people, Ramadan is a very special time of the year in every Muslim country. The community pulls together and there is a very strong sense of reverence and awareness of things that are not of this world.

After those few cherished childhood days, for a long time I didn’t give any thought to Ramadan except when we had to make sure to refrain from eating in public during Islam’s holy month. Years later, a bunch of Catholics from our tiny parish in Ankara went out for lunch. An Eastern Catholic friend ordered a very boring meal with no meat and dairy, while we dined on kebabs. That was the very first time I learned that, back in the day, Christians fasted with vigor during Lent as they prepared for Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Finally, I understood where Muhammad got the idea of a monthlong fast that ends with a feast. While Catholics left the unifying traditions behind, Muslims still cling to fasting.

Being a Catholic nowadays is hard, and shadow is forever lingering over our lives, but we are not helpless, because this is a spiritual fight first and foremost. We must offer up reparation for sins and pray that the Lord will cleanse His Church, including our own souls. What is one sacrifice every Catholic can make? Fasting.

St. Thomas Aquinas says fasting is good for three purposes.

First, refraining from food bridles the lusts of the flesh. Saying “no” to food teaches us that despite what the world says, we can tame our appetite both for food and for sex. Therefore, fasting is especially a fitting penance for those who struggle with sins of the flesh.

Second, when we fast our mind is more free to arise to contemplation of heavenly things. Every time a pang of hunger hits, the reason of our penance and Our Lord’s sacrifice come to mind. Our weakness in the face such small discomfort reminds us over and over throughout the day that without Christ, we are nothing.

Third, fasting paves the way to conversion, leading us away from sin. As St. Augustine says, “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one's flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.”

In the wake of the crisis in the Church, Ember Days are making a comeback. These were days of fast and abstinence observed at the turn of the season. Pope Gregory VII prescribed them for the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after the feast day of St. Lucia (Dec. 13), after Ash Wednesday, after Whitsunday and after the feast of Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14). These days of penance were introduced to thank the Lord for the gifts of nature, to teach us the importance of moderation and to provide for the needy.

This was indeed a wonderful way to take the pagan celebrations and sanctify them into the Faith. Fasting for the reparation of the sins of the clergy during Ember Days is an easy way to reintroduce this most valuable spiritual discipline. Three days each season in addition to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday add up to only 14 days of fast. Only 14 days, but what a difference that will make in our lives and in the Church.

As St. Basil the Great says:

Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness.

If the laity took up this spiritual burden and offered up their sufferings, the invisible hold of evil will start shaking. After all, Satan’s temptation of Christ came after His 40-day fast in the desert. He was strong when He was supposed to be weak. Daniel received a revelation from the Lord only after fasting for three weeks.

Performing penance, including fasting, is an imitation of Christ. Communal acts of reparation not only declare that Christ’s Church is one body, but also acknowledge that the cause of the problem is sin. Fasting and praying show us how sinful and weak our own hearts are, and how without the gift of Christ, no one can break free from the slavery of sin. We fast and pray and do penance so that the sinner  — including us — can be moved to conversion and will desire to seek out the sacraments.

Fall Ember Days of 2019 are Sept. 18, 20 and 21. Especially during Lent, a time of penance, fasting and praying are crucial. Let us once again create a Catholic culture where we come together not only on Sundays, but many other days where our own children will remember abstaining and fasting as a family. We cannot only tame our sinful appetites and keep evil at bay, but also carve a true Catholic community out of this secular culture through the communal act of fasting.

The more you fast, the easier it gets. Expect it to be hard at first, but that hardship is part of the sacrifice. Here are some tips:

  • Drink lots of water.
  • Coffee is your friend.
  • Eat nuts and whole grain for the two snacks.
  • Say a prayer when it gets hard.
  • Remember Our Lord’s 40-day fast in the desert.
  • Be joyful.
  • You’re imitating Christ and He’s with you every moment.

I hope that one day in the future, my own children will fondly reminisce on the days of penance when we came together as a family to eat grilled cheese sandwiches and fruit salad.

Archbishop Hubertus van Megen celebrates the episcopal consecration of Father John Kiplimo Lelei as auxiliary bishop of Kenya’s Diocese of Eldoret on May 25, 2024.

Nuncio in Kenya: Church in Europe is Losing ‘its Inner Compass’

The Nairobi-based Vatican diplomat, who has also been representing the Holy Father in South Sudan, highlighted the need to seek God’s mercy as important and implored: “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”