Today, the Ember Wednesday of Lent, there is an extra reading before the gospel, about the miraculous feeding of the prophet Elijah:
He cast himself down, and slept in the shadow of the juniper tree: and behold an angel of the Lord touched him, and said to him: Arise and eat. He looked, and behold there was at his head a hearth cake, and a vessel of water: and he ate and drank and fell asleep again.
The Hebrew phrase translated as ‘a hearth cake’ is literally ‘bread of coals’ or ‘bread of embers’. So although the English phrase ‘Ember days’ is, according to the learned, simply a corruption of something else (the learned aren’t quite sure whether ‘Ember’ is a corruption of the Latin ‘tempora’, as in the Quattuor Tempora i.e. the four seasons, or of the Old English ‘ymbren’ meaning a circuit), it was a happy coincidence or happy instinct that produced it. As the prophet was fed from the embers and was able to go fasting for forty days and forty nights till he reached the mountain of God, so we draw our strength from these penitential days, and though we ourselves may be but embers in comparison to the great fire of the Holy Ghost that was poured upon the Church at Pentecost, we have still heat and fervour enough to bake from our penitential practices the nourishment that we need.
The Vulgate describes the bread that fed the prophet as panis subcinericius, literally ‘under-the-ashes bread’. The Septuagint version means the same: it uses the word ἐγκρυφίας, which contains the root that gives us the word ‘cryptic’, or hidden. The bread was baked inside hot ash, which would then have been brushed off. St Bonaventure sees in all this a type of the Holy Eucharist. Just as Elijah’s bread was hidden beneath the ashes, so our Bread is hidden beneath humble appearances. As the outer layer of ash had to be stripped away to reach the nourishment within, we must strip away the accidents by faith to reach the substance that will feed us.
Or perhaps also we could say that the ashes are the Passion of Christ, when He became disfigured for us beyond the sons of men, and His beauty was hidden beneath His sufferings. The fire of charity produced those ashes, and by that fire and beneath those ashes He made Himself our bread, to be eaten bodily in the mystery of the altar, to be eaten spiritually in the reading of the gospel. Yet Elias, after he had eaten and drunk, fell asleep again and had to be wakened a second time by the angel and fed a second time. The sleep of forgetfulness threatens us, even when we have received great benefits. May God in His mercy never cease to rouse us this second time until we come to His mountain where there will be slumbering and even sacraments no more.