Pope St Leo the Great Preaches on the Ember Days

Gregory DiPippo

In addition to the feast of the Apostle and Evangelist St Matthew, in the usus antiquior of the Roman Rite, today is the first of the September Ember days. These are fasting days that each occur toward the end of each season, on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the third week of Advent, the first week of Lent, Pentecost week, and the third week of September. St Leo I, who was Pope from 440 to 461, preached on them frequently, and believed them to be of Apostolic origin; while we cannot be certain that this is indeed the case, they are certainly very ancient. In Sermon 93 on the Ember fast of September, he says “licet tempus omne sit congruum, hoc tamen habemus aptissimum, quod et apostolicis et legalibus institutis videmus electum, ut sicut in aliis anni diebus, ita in mense septimo spiritalibus nos purificationibus emundemus. – Although every time is suitable for the medicine (of fasting), this time is most fit because we see it as chosen by the decrees of the Apostles and the laws, so that just as on other days of the year, so in the seventh month (i.e. September), we should cleanse ourselves by spiritual purifications.”

Here is an excerpt from one of his other sermons for the September Ember days (87), in which he explains the spiritual value of fasting.

 “Deus humani generis conditor et redemptor, qui nos ad promissiones vitae aeternae per semitas vult ambulare justitiae, quia non defuturae erant tentationes quae nobis in itinere virtutum insidiosis adversarentur occursibus, multis nos praesidiis, dilectissimi, quibus laqueos diaboli obtereremus, instruxit: inter quae hoc famulis suis saluberrimum contulit, ut contra omnes inimici dolos fortitudine se continentiae et operibus pietatis armarent. …

… nos saluberrimae observantiae ratione informavit, praefiniens nobis per temporum recursus quosdam jejuniorum dies in quibus castigatione corporum virtus roboraretur animorum. Hujus autem remedii munus, dilectissimi, etiam in isto qui septimus est mense dispositum est, quod nos prompta convenit alacritate suscipere; ut praeter illam abstinentiam, qua quisque se peculiariter atque privatim secundum modum suae possibilitatis exercet, haec quae omnibus simul indicitur animosius celebretur. Nam in omni agone certaminis Christiani, utilitas continentiae plurimum valet, ita ut quidam saevissimorum spiritus daemonum, qui ab obsessis corporibus nullis exorcizantium fugantur imperiis, sola jejuniorum et orationum virtute pellantur, dicente Domino: Hoc genus daemoniorum non ejicitur nisi in jejunio et oratione (Marc. 9, 28). Grata ergo est Deo et terribilis diabolo jejunantis oratio…

(A statue of Pope St Leo I in the basilica of St Ann in Altötting, Bavaria. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Mattana, cropped; CC BY 2.0)

God, the creator and redeemer of the human race, who wishes us to walk along the paths of justice toward the promises of eternal life, since temptations would always be present to oppose us as treacherous obstacles on the way of virtue, he has endowed us with many defenses, dearly beloved, with which to trample the devil’s snares. Among these, he bestowed this most salutary means upon his servants, so that they might arm themselves against all the enemy’s wiles with courage and the works of mercy. …

he instructed us with an understanding of a most salutary observance, prescribing for us certain days of fast through the course of the seasons, on which the strength of our souls may be confirmed by the chastisement of our bodies. 2. A duty to apply this remedy, dearly beloved, has also been laid down in this month of September, which it befits us to undertake it with a readily and eagerly, so that apart from that abstinence by which one might discipline himself individually and privately, according to the degree of his own ability, this abstinence (which has been appointed for us all) should be celebrated more devotedly.

For in every contest of the Christian struggle, the use of self-restraint has very great value, such that certain spirits of the most fierce demons, which are not been driven out of possessed bodies by the commands of any exorcists, have been expelled solely by the power of fasting and prayers, as the Lord said, ‘This kind of demon is cast out only by prayer and fasting.’ (Mark 9, 28) Therefore, the prayer of someone fasting is pleasing to God, and terrifying to the devil…”

The words of the Lord cited above, “This kind of demon is cast out only by prayer and fasting,” come from the Gospel for today’s Ember day Mass, Mark 9, 16-28. This may indicate that this Gospel was already a part of the Roman liturgical tradition when Pope Leo preached this sermon in the mid-5th century. But of course, it might also be that the compiler of the Roman Mass lectionary was inspired to make this choice by Pope Leo’s sermon.

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