Contemporary Observation of Ember Days

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Sep 23, 2014

Even Catholics who lived before Vatican Council II would say that Ember Days are one of the most confusing Catholic practices. Ember Days are an extension of our agrarian roots, but were usually seen merely as fast and abstinence days on the calendar. Most Catholics born after 1965 typically have an outlook of: “Ember Days? I never heard of them. Are they related to Ash Wednesday?”

This Wednesday, Friday and Saturday mark the Autumn or September Ember days (a mouthful!), which seems a fine time to unpack this Catholic tradition. What and when are the Ember Days? What are the connections to the seasons and the Liturgy? Do they have any meaning to us today? What ways can we or should we observe Ember Days?

What Are Ember Days?

On Rogation and Ember Days the Church is accustomed to entreat the Lord for the various needs of humanity, especially for the fruits of the earth and for human labor, and to give thanks to him publicly. (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 45).

Four times a year, approximately three months apart, near the beginning of each season of the solar cycle (winter, spring, summer and autumn), the Church set aside three days (a total of twelve days in a year) to ask for blessings upon mankind, and to pray in gratitude for the blessings of nature, particularly those used by the Church in her Liturgy, such as olives, grapes, and wheat. This is also a time set apart to thank God for the sacraments and pray for priests, particularly those who were being ordained. These days are marked with prayer, fasting and abstinence and stress spiritual renewal; Ember Days could be regarded as quarterly spiritual check-ups.

No, Ember Days are not related to Ash Wednesday. The word “Ember” actually comes from the Latin phrase, Quatuor Tempora, meaning four times.

Why are they called “Ember Days”? The words has nothing to do with embers or ashes. It may be from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, a circle or revolution; or it may be a corruption of quatuor tempora; for in Dutch the name is “Quatertemper,” in German “Quatember,” and in Danish “Kvatember”–whence the transition to Ember Days is easy (Sullivan, The Externals of the Catholic Church).

This is an ancient tradition of the Church. Pope St. Leo the Great in the 5th century mentioned the Ember Day Fasts, pointing to these fasts as stemming from Old Testament and Apostolic tradition. (See the Fathers of the Church Collection, sermons on fasting by St. Leo).

While not universally practiced, Ember Days are still a vital part of the Church’s tradition.

Dates and Changes to the Ember Days

An old English rhyme pointed to the Ember Days during the year:

Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.

The traditional dates for the Ember days are the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday:

  1. After St. Lucy’s feast day, December 13
  2. After the First Sunday of Lent
  3. After Pentecost (Whitsunday) (this would be during the traditional octave of Pentecost)
  4. After the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14

In 1960 under Pope St. John XXIII, the Ember Days in September were adjusted to fall after the 3rd Sunday in September. Usually this coincides with the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, but this year is an example of the Ember Days falling the next week. (See New Liturgical Movement for further explanation.) All other Ember weeks were fixed to a certain week; this change fixed the September Ember breviary readings and prayers to a particular week.

These were days of fasting and abstinence, allowing one full meal, with meat at the principal meal only, except on Fridays where complete abstinence was required. The Code of Canon Law of 1983 no longer requires the observance of these fasting and abstinence rules for Ember Days.

Formerly, priestly ordinations were performed on many of the Saturday Ember Days. There is no longer this liturgical connection in the United States, but Ember Saturdays still are a day to pray for priests.

The Ember Days also are no longer universally marked on the General Roman Calendar. In the 1969 Calendar reform (see General Instruction on the Roman Missal), the observance of Ember Days was left to the discretion of the conference of bishops, and can be adjusted and expanded. In the USA most bishops have chosen to not officially observe Ember Days, but in other countries they are observed. While Ember Days are not part of the whole community worship, personal observance at home or small communities is not discouraged.

Ember Days In the Liturgy

The older Missal contains special Mass prayers and readings for each Ember Day of the Year. The Breviary also assigns specific prayers to these days.

Because Ember Days are of ancient tradition, there are Station Churches attached to the Ember Days, each with a different focus on each day of ember week.

  • All four Ember Wednesdays were celebrated in the station church St. Mary Major. Wednesday was traditionally devoted to our Lady and in imitation of her it was a day of reflection and spiritual orientation.
  • All four Ember Fridays take place in the stational church of the Basilica of the Apostles. Father Pius Parsch says: “Ember Friday is the liturgy’s ‘Yom Kippur.’“ Friday recalls Christ’s passion and death and emphasizes conversion and penance.
  • All the Ember Saturdays take place in the stational church of St. Peter in the Vatican. Saturday is a preview of Easter, and it marks the renewal of our baptismal covenant.

Seasonal Observances and Agrarian Roots

The Church has always recognized that we have both spiritual and human needs. She honors that connection with our agrarian roots, recognizing God’s gift of nature to us. The Ember Days reflect the different seasons and harvests of the year. Originally they matched with the Mediterranean crop harvests of grapes, olives, and wheat. As the Church has spread, the harvest seasons do not always correspond to the traditional focal points of the Ember Days, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere.

The specific themes for each Ember Week of the year:

1. In spring, during the first week of Lent, to give thanks for the rebirth of nature and for the gift of light (usually flowers are offered at this time).

2. In summer, within the octave of Pentecost, to give thanks for the wheat crop.

3. In autumn, after the third Sunday of September, near the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), to give thanks for the grape harvest.

4. In winter, within the week following the Feast of St. Lucy (December 13), during the third week of Advent, to give thanks for the olive crop. (see Strasser, With Christ Through the Year).

This image by Sister M.A. Justina Knapp, OS.B. from With Christ through the Year by Bernard Strasser, captures those separate seasonal themes. From the caption:

This illustration shows, to a certain extent, how the ember days resemble our own lives. In the springtime we receive supernatural life through Baptism (represented by the baptismal candle); throughout the summer and autumn of our lives our souls are nourished by the Body (the host has been made from the kernels of wheat) and the Blood (the chalice) of our Lord. In the winter we reap the harvest of our good works as we begin our journey into eternity, fortified by Holy Viaticum and the sacrament of Extreme Unction (oil).

At the offertory procession at these masses, tithes of the harvest were offered by the faithful, to be used at the Mass (in forms of bread and wine), and also for the support of the Church and the poor.

Ember Days Here and Now

With all the changes, it could be asked why bother with Ember Days? Even if one follows the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and the 1962 Calendar, there is no binding obligation for fasting and abstinence. Are there other reasons to observe Ember Days? And what ways can we observe personally in our families?

I see several reasons why and how we can observe Ember Days:

1) In Thanksgiving for God’s creation. First of all, the Ember Days can remind us that God speaks to us in His creation. In today’s age of predominantly urban living with technology there can be a disconnect with God and creation.

Contemporary man is often cut off from nature; he lives in a world that is reduced to a universe of tarmac, concrete, and all kinds of screens. He is the prisoner of a fabricated world, a virtual world, the projection of his own fantasies, instead of being in contact with creation. As a result, he is sometimes cut off from God—and from himself (Jacques Philippe, Thirsting for Prayer, pp. 74-75).

Our food is shipped from all over the world, arriving in big box stores, wrapped in plastic and paper. We watch the weather forecast for our outdoor sports activities, not with an awareness of the nearby farmer’s need for his crops. By observing in small ways the quarterly Ember Days with a focus on the different harvest seasons, we can bring our thoughts back to God and His creation, and also unite with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

One must point out that the public prayer of the church as contained in the missal, breviary and ritual is not for the exclusive welfare of the farmer, but for all the members of Christ’s Body. The man or woman in the city cathedral praying the Mass or using the sacramentals is praying for the good of the farmer; and likewise the farmer in the little rural church at Mass or any public service of the liturgy as well as in the use of the sacramentals and ritual is mindful of his brother’s needs before the throne of almighty God and in union with the eternal Priest, the Redeemer, our Lord Himself (Morrison, “Using Sacramentals”, Orate Fratres, Volume XXIV, February 1950, No. 3, pp. 128-132).

Observing the Ember Days brings us closer to creation, and gratitude for “our daily bread.” We are linking back to our agrarian roots to find God and to reconnect the urban and rural members in the Mystical Body of Christ.

2) A Mini-Lent: Bringing Our Focus Back to God. Putting aside some time for God through prayer and penance each quarter of the year can help redirect our focus back to God. We are often pulled in all directions by worldly needs. The Ember Days could be considered a mini-Lent (Msgr. Hellriegel provides some meditations on the Fall Ember Days). A little fasting and self-denial can help jump-start our spiritual lives.

The penance aspect is also brought forward by offering our first-fruits in a variety of ways. Ade Bethune tells of her canning experience during the War, pointing out that

...the idea remains that we must, of the abundance which is given us, offer the first fruits as a gift. No man can receive a gift worthily unless he makes himself like the one from whom he holds the gift. And how can we be like Him who gives us all? By giving, even as He gives.

3) A Family Program Brings Us Closer to God. We can look at Ember Days with a family focus. Formerly Ember Days were dreaded because of the penance involved. I found a wonderful article by Florence Berger which helps put the Ember Days in a different, more positive light.

To most of us an ember day means penance and some extra prayers, and codfish balls for dinner. If I were to tell you an ember day is a feast day you would ask where I ever heard such a thing. If I would call it a day of joy when we should sing and play and have fun you would think me slightly “tetched.” If finally I would suggest having guests or at least a good family dinner to celebrate the ember season of September you would say I was making rules to suit myself. Yet codfish and long faces are not at all necessary “to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation and to assist the need.” These three are the first purpose of ember days....But four times a year, in a very special way holy Church runs to God, her helper and her strength and says her thanks....Thankfulness is a happy expression of love and service and our ember days are days of thanksgiving for harvest and home....At the same time she is doing penance because she will give up some of her blessings “to draw near to God” and acknowledge His bounty.

She unveils her family’s program for Ember Days:

  1. focusing on thanksgiving to God;
  2. giving to the poor,
  3. illustrating one of the purposes of fasting, and praying for priests while planting the seed for the future vocations for her children.

4) For Priests and Vocations. Dare I add a fourth reason? Our current vocation crisis cannot be denied. And those who are priests and religious need prayers to be strong and faithful in serving the Lord. We need to pray for our priests, pray for religious and pray for vocations.

Observing Ember Days is adding a few more feast days to our Liturgical celebrations, rounding out our prayers of petition, thanksgiving and penance. We do not have to make this complicated. The Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours is the focus of prayer in thanksgiving and petition. The Ordinary Form does not have specific Liturgy for Ember Days, but various meditations can help our intention. The penance aspect can be through voluntary fasting and abstinence, and also through almsgiving. We don’t have to follow the traditional prescribed abstinence and fasting rules; days with added mortifications and perhaps abbreviated fasting or self-denial, but it’s keeping the spirit of the Ember Days.

Liturgical Cooking for Ember Days

And of course, one can tie in liturgical cooking to highlight these days. Meatless tarts, such as the Ymber or Ember Day Onion and Egg Tart harkens from medieval times. A simple tempura (or takeout, if that is easier) recalls the actual Latin name of the Ember Days: quatuor tempora. Another avenue could be centerpiecing the harvest food, such as grapes and wine for these current Ember Days in September. One could also include each of the four seasonal foods as decoration or in the food for each ember day of the year. A meal created with grapes (wine), bread, olives (olive oil), and either flowers as decoration or food (such as broccoli) could become your family’s traditional Ember Day meal. (Think of something simple, like spaghetti, garlic bread, broccoli and wine) The possibilities are endless. Just because they are penitential days doesn’t mean they can’t be symbolic.

While Ember Days are not the most complicated Catholic tradition, they can be confusing. Understanding some of the aspects of the origins and liturgy can shed some light on ways to personally observe this ancient treasure of the Church. In that way, with our hearts full of joy, we shall sing our praises of gratitude to God for His many blessings.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: stephanie.linden2136 - Sep. 24, 2014 3:43 AM ET USA

    How rich! You are digging up all these treasures that Holy Mother Church has prepared for us. I even grew up in a rural community and never heard of the Ember Days until about 5 years ago...probaby from you!