Summer or Pentecost Ember Days

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Jun 09, 2017

The Wednesday following Pentecost traditionally begins the Summer or Pentecost Ember Days. I have written several posts on Ember Days (links at the end of this post) but never touched on the Ember Days following Pentecost, hence yet another post on Ember Days. I’m in the midst of packing for our summer vacation, so the post is a little late, but there is one more day left for these Ember Days.

What’s An Ember?

Ember Days are no longer universally observed, so they may not be a familiar term to most Catholics. I recall coming across the term “Ember Days” in older Catholic books and missals and being very perplexed. What does a piece of hot glowing coal or wood have to do with the Catholic faith? Since we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, I did wonder if there might be a connection, or maybe it had something to do with the prophet Isaiah, but there is no connection to either. In Latin, Ember Days are Quatuor Tempora (four times). The English word “Ember”could be a corruption of the Latin Tempora or of the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, which means circle or revolution. It is easier to see the connection through other languages, such as Dutch (Quatertemper), German (Quatember) and Danish (Kvatember).

How to Remember the Embers

There are numerous mnemonic devices or rhymes in both Latin and English that reminded people of the quarterly days. I’ve seen various versions of this Latin one:

Sant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angaria quarta sequens feria.

Holy Cross, Lucy, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost,
are when the quarter holidays follow.

There is also an old English rhyme:

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

My favorite is this one in Latin, short and to the point:

Post Lucem, post Crucem, post Cineres, post Ignes.

Which means (taking liberty of the Ignes/Flames):

After Lucia, after the Cross,
after the Ashes and after Pentecost.

Each one is a reminder that around the four main seasons of the solar cycle, the Ember days follow certain feast days:

  1. Advent Ember Days are observed after St. Lucy’s feast day, December 13, falling near the Winter Solstice.
  2. Spring or Lent Ember Days are after the First Sunday of Lent, the week after Ash Wednesday, which is near the spring equinox.
  3. Summer or Pentecost Ember Days are the week after Pentecost, during the traditional octave of Pentecost, near the summer solstice.
  4. The September Ember Days or Fall Ember Days are after the third Sunday in September (changed by St. John XXIII), which usually is the week following September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, but not always.

I did not realize until recently that these little mnenomic devices were really necessary, because Ember Days do not show up on the General Roman Calendar list of feasts, either before of after Vatican II. Ember Days have the distinction of being a feria (a day without a certain feast attached or not within a liturgical season) with special privileges. In the Extraordinary Form there are certain Propers and Readings for the Mass and Divine Office for each set of Ember Days.

Ember Days are a quarterly observance of three days (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday), with the original focus on gratitude to God for various harvests, fixed near the beginning of each season of the solar cycle (winter, spring, summer and autumn). As the observances were added to the Liturgical Year, the themes expanded to asking for blessings on mankind and prayer for priests, especially for those being ordained. Ember Days became days of prayer, fasting and abstinence, stressing personal spiritual renewal.

In the current General Roman Calendar, Ember Days are optional, and usually only celebrated by rural communities.

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).

The purpose is almost the same, but there is no particular liturgy as in the Extraordinary Form 1962 calendar. The fasting and partial abstinence requirements are lifted. The focus on priestly ordinations is no longer emphasized except as personal devotion.

Special Ember Flavors

The themes of thanksgiving and petition to God especially at the shifting of the seasons of the year answer a natural pull or inner urge of man’s physical nature to respond to the change of seasons, and our need to turn to God to thank Him for His blessings and ask for further help as we enter the next season. Although Ember Days were originally an agrarian focus, the context can shift and expand. Currently the Northern Hemisphere is entering the summer season, with the school year ending and the start of summer traditions (vacations, cook-outs, picnics, swimming). We need to stop and realign our lives with our Creator instead of allowing ourselves to be consumed by the world’s “busyness.” Modern man needs reminders of our agrarian daily needs and gifts we receive from God. We also need to insert this focus in our current lives. Modernity might not have rural living as a focus, but should still order our days as entirely dependent upon God’s care.

As I mentioned before in Contemporary Observation of Ember Days, the quarterly days have similarities, all having the same stational churches in Rome, all have similar patterns in their Liturgy as thanksgiving and petition and prayer for priests, but each season also has an individual flavor, arising from the Liturgical season or feast or the time of year it falls. In addition, the original harvest focus meant focusing on different harvests for each quarter. Advent was the olive crop, Lent (the last of the Ember Days) gave thanks for the gift of light and rebirth, wheat for Pentecost, and September was the grape harvest.

Fire and Wheat

Ember Days are one of the ancient traditions of the Church of Rome. We have Ember Day meditations from Pope Leo the Great from 450, which indicates they were well established before his papacy. Harvest festivals were quite common in ancient civilizations, so it was natural for Christians to incorporate the festivals within the liturgy of the Church, “baptizing” this custom.

The original Jewish feast of Pentecost marked the wheat harvest. After the first Pentecost of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem, this wheat festival was transformed into the Christian liturgy.

Pentecost is celebration of the end of Easter and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In later centuries an octave was added for Pentecost. This made the fasting aspect of the Pentecost Ember Days less emphasized, or a conflicting theme. The Octave was a prolonging of the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, definitely a less penitential focus than the Ember Days in Advent and Lent. Later the General Roman Calendar reform in 1969 removed the octave.

The Church would offer the first-fruits during the Ember Days (Pentecost is wheat) and pray for priests who would be ordained. The particular harvests of wheat, grapes and oil have distinct purposes in the liturgy of the Church, which is why these are the traditional harvests for the Ember Days. Because the wheat is used for the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Ember Days of Summer also have a Eucharistic focus, our “Bread of Life.”

The Pentecostal flavor of the Ember Days is to understand further the riches and graces from the Holy Spirit especially as received at Pentecost. Pius Parsch elaborates on the special gifts of Pentecost:

4. Do we receive anything particular on the feast of Pentecost? What, if any, is its special significance? Every feast of the Church brings with it two blessings, a revelation, and a grace. These are the two treasures Christ brought to earth, and which the Church has preserved for use. Every feast gives us a certain segment of revealed truth, every feast confers its appropriate grace, providing we are of good will.

a) Now what truth is proper to Pentecost? Pentecost brings Easter to completion. Easter proclaimed the redemption. Christ, the Victor over death and hell, liberated men from the bonds of sin and opened the kingdom of God. Pentecost heralds the glad tidings that the redemptive work of Christ continues in the Church; it announces to us the presence and activity of the Holy Ghost. The work begun by Christ is continued in the Church by the Holy Ghost. Let us strengthen our faith in the Holy Ghost, the “Giver of Life.” What the soul is to the body, the Holy Ghost is to the Church and to souls. It is the Holy Ghost who transforms the Church, composed as it is of weak and sinful men, into Christ’s mystical Body, into a communion of saints, into a reservoir of grace into Christ continuing His work of teaching and redeeming.

b) And Pentecost’s special grace? As Easter renews baptism, Pentecost should confirm us again. Baptism makes us children of God, confirmation should make us mature, experienced Christians. The grace of Pentecost should give us strength to profess our faith privately as well as publicly. Pentecost’s grace should dispose us to exercise our common priesthood around the altar and in our homes, it should make us temples of the Holy Ghost. Pentecost’s grace should increase within us the Spirit’s seven gifts—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Pray fervently for Pentecost’s graces “Come, Holy Ghost, fill the hearts of Your faithful” (The Church’s Year of Grace, Volume 3: Easter to Pentecost, p. 230.)

The Pentecostal revelation and grace can be our focus in the Summer Ember Days and extended into Ordinary Time (or Time after Pentecost in the Extraordinary Form calendar).

I don’t want to focus on the Ember Days as a backward looking movement, but instead I’m looking at ways to incorporate them in our family life in small ways, giving flavor of the tradition of the Church but understanding the changes in the the liturgy. I gave some general suggestions in my Contemporary Observation of Ember Days that encompass prayer and activities for personal devotions. Next year I’ll bake some special bread for these summer Ember Days, but this year, for the final day in the Pentecost Ember Days I see two focal points: One, our family will be praying for our priests, as our diocese will be having our priesthood ordinations tomorrow; and secondly, on our family road trip we will be sure to observe the agrarian bounty. It is early summer so the crops are just starting their process of growing. In our prayers we can thank God for his blessings, ask for rich harvests and blessings on those who provide our food. And on while on vacation, we will enjoy the bounty.

(Graphic from The Church’s Year of Grace, Vol 3: Easter to Pentecost by Pius Parsch, p. 236:
Pictured is the spiritual harvest wrought by the Holy Ghost. Just as rain is needed to produce a good harvest, so the Spirit’s fire renders Church and soul fruitful. Eucharistic wheat and wine abound on all sides; with it God’s children refresh themselves unto eternal life, as indicated by the peacocks at the huge stone jar (after a drawing in St. Mark’s cathedral, Venice). Above, the Holy Spirit strikes a harp to make the joy of Pentecost resound throughout the Church.)

My previous posts on the Ember Days:

For Further Reading and Meditation:

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: normnuke - Jun. 16, 2017 11:36 PM ET USA

    You touched glancingly on somethng I have thought before: the intense reverence that the Druids had for the oak, even when burnt to ash. Hence ash wednesday? Hence Ember days? Hence marking of coming seasons? Always at the beginnings thereof. The influence of druid thought and practice in the Church is a tangled study. Even the word is interesting, though. Dru - Vid = Oak-wit