Catholic Activity: In the Home: Ember Days
Ember days are a misunderstood part of the current Church's tradition. They are not abolished, but practiced according to the local Bishops' conference. The US Bishop's conference has chosen to not observe them, but personal and family observance is not discouraged.
An article by Florence Berger from the journal Orate Fratres, Vol. XXV, September 1951, No. 1, p. 466-468.
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 needy." These three are the first purpose of ember days.
Thankfulness is a happy expression of love and service and our ember days are days of thanksgiving for harvest and home. You never saw a birthday boy with his hands full of gifts run to his father in tears and cry "Boo hoo, thank you, Daddy, for all the presents you gave me." You might even expect a little girl who received two dozen lollypops from a doting aunt to put a dozen aside for a rainy day. She might, I said might, even be moved to give away a half-dozen to her drooling playmates. In the Jewish synagogue this would be known as a thank-offering. That is exactly what we try to do in our home because that is exactly what the Catholic Church does on ember days.
She counts her blessings. She rejoices in the harvest of wheat and grapes and oil. Three times a year at the three great harvests of grain, grape and olive the early Church expressed her gratitude. These three made her physical life strong. These three made her liturgy pregnant. These three were the building stones of her spiritual life. And finally a fourth, a harvest time of flowers, was added to grace the others.
It is true that the Church is continually thankful. With every Mass we all agree, "it is meet and just that at all times we give thanks to Thee, O God!" But four times a year, in a very special way, holy Church runs to God, her helper and her strength and says her thanks.
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. By fasting she acknowledges weakness and turns to God as "the Lord who dwelleth on high and looketh down on the low things in heaven and on earth." But in her abstinence she grows strong and finds her "spirit renewed in strength." Her riches and joys are so great that she would share with all men. And so the needy are raised up from the earth and the poor lifted from the dunghill.
In the home a like pattern can be worked out for the September ember week. First we count our blessings. It is so easy for indulged children to assume that all is their due and indulgent parents too often admit it. We like to make a game of saying thanks. Each player must think of ten blessings and none can be repeated as we go the rounds. We are thankful for everything from soap (not Freddie) to singing, from birds to bugs (not Ann), from tires to turnips (not Christine). Then in family prayer it is very easy to include all these earthly goods and raise them to a higher praise of God. On the ember days use Daniel 3:57-88, 56 as a prayer of thanks and you will restore again the intimate relationship between nature and its Creator.
A very practical bond can be knit between food and the Giver of Bread. Because the children of men can most easily see food as a gift of God the idea of sacrifice has often meant the giving up of things to eat. As the early Christians once gave a tithe of their harvests to be blessed at Mass and given to the poor, we as a family can at least do something similar to say thank you. By this time of the year our freezers and cupboards are full and others' pots and cupboards are empty. Make your ember days feast days for the hungry. "Let the abstinence of him who fasts become the banquet of the poor."
This brings us to the second emphasis of the ember week. Sometime during the years 492-496 Pope Gelasius decreed that the priesthood might be conferred on ember Saturdays in addition to the Easter ordinations. This has made of ember Saturday a day of prayer for priests and we have followed the tradition.
No day is better suited to tell children how great is a vocation to the priesthood, but once again I feel that a child is more impressed by having known and loved a great priest. So at the end of our meal on ember Saturday, we pray for our priests. First there is our own pastor, who has patiently listened to our everlasting praise of the liturgical apostolate. Then we read and reread some of the notes and letters we have received from our priestly friends since the last ember days. There is Monsignor Ferrara deep in the Sudan jungles who writes to Freddie about goats and promises Ann a beautiful duck when they come to help him in Africa. There is Father Maestrini who has told Mary of the feast of the dragon in Hong Kong and is enlisting lay apostles to aid him in China. And And Father Damasus Winzen excited about cows and black sheep for his new priory, Mount Savior, in the Chemung hills of upstate new York. Monsignor Hellriegel held Freddie spellbound as he talked of his father on the way to Mass with his eleven brothers. In Rome there is Monsignor Ligutti and Father Urbain pleading for Christ in all countries and all countries for Christ. And we remember young Johnny Martin, a seminarian in the new Byzantine seminary of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, soon to be completed for priests of the Eastern rite. These are the shepherds who have fed us, who have given us our portion of wheat in due season. It is easy to pray for those you love, and to pray that one's children will seek their paths.
Of course this matter of vocation is a mother's greatest prayer. We hope so much, yet we know it is all in the hands of God. I do not pray that our boy will be a priest, but I do pray that he will come to know great, kind and apostolic priests like those who taught and encouraged Pius X. I do not pray that our girls will be religious, but I do pray that the Sisters they meet will be as loving and holy as those who attract and held the Little Flower. I do not pray that our girls will marry, but I do pray that if they do they will be valiant as women and dedicated as wives to "the sacred order of laity." It is the dedication which matters, the hearing of God and the willingness to say "yes." It is the deep knowledge that Christ has a plan of sanctity for each individual that makes of every good way of life a vocation. Our prayer for the ember day is what we find our Way and follow it. We may be a Trappist with mud on our shoes. We may be a teaching Sister with "chalk on our sleeve." We may be a mother with a new baby on our arm. But we must all of us, without exception, be saints and followers of Christ.
Activity Source: Orate Fratres/Worship: A Review Devoted to the Liturgical Apostolate , The Liturgical Press