Each year during the first full week of Lent, Catholics for centuries have observed the Ember Days. There are four sets of these days (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) of fasting and abstinence from flesh, corresponding roughly to the changes of seasons. They fall after the First Sunday of Lent, after Pentecost, near the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14), and after the Third Sunday of Advent (near St Lucy’s Day, December 13). “Ember” probably derives from Anglo-Saxon ymbren, (from ymb, “around”, and rennen, “to run”), the annual circuit of the sun. In Latin, the Ember Days are the Quatuor Tempora, or “four times” of the year.

Rudyard Kipling wrote: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” I beg to differ. As I mentioned a couple of years ago, in the 16th-century Jesuit missionaries settled in Nagasaki, Japan. They tried to make culturally acceptable meatless meals for their converts for Ember Days. Hence, they deep-fried vegetables and shrimp in the same way as they had back in Portugal and in their colony Goa. The Japanese perfected this technique. You might have some tempura, from the Latin tempora, while reading Shusaku Endo’s spectacularly depressing, jesuitical Silence about an apostate priest, now a movie by Martin Scorsese.

On second thoughts, don’t! It could erode your faith. Instead, listen to the beautiful Latin Church, Japanese fusion music Hispania & Japan: Dialogues, which hearkens to how the mighty Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier (d 1552) used chant to evangelise in Japan. St Francis and his companions sang as they went about, which drew people who were curious about the captivating new strains of Gregorian chant.

Music has great power to attract people to the faith. It also has power to drive them away or infantilise. On March 4 Pope Francis addressed a conference in honour of the 50th anniversary of the conciliar document Musicam Sacram. Francis said: “Certainly the encounter with modernity and the introduction of [vernacular] tongues into the liturgy stirred up many problems: of musical languages, forms and genres. Sometimes a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations.”

He went on to encourage an improvement of the quality of sacred music and liturgical chant, especially asking for proper musical education for seminarians.

How’s the music in your parish?

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