TODAY, Wednesday, February 24 and Friday and Saturday of this week are the traditional spring EMBER DAYS (or Lenten Embertide). Below you will find a brief explanation of the traditional Ember Days:
The “Quatuor Temporum” or “Four Times,” or Ember Days
What Are They?
- The Ember Days are four series of Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays which correspond to the natural seasons of the year. Autumn brings the September, or Michaelmas, Embertide; winter, the Advent Embertide; Spring, the Lenten Embertide; and in summer, the Whit Embertide (named after Whitsunday, the Feast of Pentecost).
- The English title for these days, “Ember,” is derived from their Latin name: Quatuor Temporum, meaning the “Four Times” or “Four Seasons.”
- The Embertides are periods of prayer and fasting, with each day having its own special Mass.
What Is Their Significance?
The Ember Days Are…
- The Old Law prescribes a “fast of the fourth month, and a fast of the fifth, and a fast of the seventh, and a fast of tenth” (Zechariah 8:19). There was also a Jewish custom at the time of Jesus to fast every Tuesday and Thursday of the week.
- The first Christians amended both of these customs, fasting instead on every Wednesday and Friday: Wednesday because it is the day that Christ was betrayed, and Friday because it is the day that He was slain. (And we now know that this biweekly fast is actually older than some books of the New Testament). Later, Christians from both East and West added their own commemorations of the seasons.
- The Ember Days thus perfectly express and reflect the essence of Christianity. Christianity does not abolish the Law but fulfills it (Mt. 5:17) by following the spirit of the Law rather than its letter. Thus, not one iota of the Law is to be neglected (Mt. 5:18), but every part is to be embraced and continued, albeit on a spiritual, or figurative, level. And living in this spirit is nothing less than living out the New Covenant.
- The Apostles preached one and the same faith wherever they went, but sometimes instituted different customs and practices. Thus, Christians came to love not only the universal faith but the particular apostolic traditions which had initiated them into that faith.
- The Roman appropriation of the Ember Days involved adding one day: Saturday. This was seen as the culmination of the Ember Week. A special Mass and procession to St. Peter’s in Rome was held, and the congregation was invited to “keep vigil with Peter.”
- Observing the Ember Days, therefore, not only celebrates our continuity with sacred history, but with our own ecclesiastical tradition.
- But continuity is not important because of a blind loyalty to one’s own or a feeling of nostalgia. On the contrary, the Christian fulfillment of the Law is important because of its pedagogical value. Everything in the Law (not to mention the rest of the Bible) is meant to teach us something fundamental about God, His redemptive plan for us, or the nature of the universe, often on levels that are not initially apparent to us. In the case of both the Hebrew seasonal fasts and the Christian Ember Days, we are invited to consider the wonder of the natural seasons and their relation to God. The seasons, for example, can be said to intimate individually the bliss of Heaven, where there is “the beauty of spring, the brightness of summer, the plenty of autumn, the rest of winter” (St. Thomas Aquinas).
- Second, because the liturgical seasons of the Church are meant to initiate us annually into the mysteries of our redemption, they should also include some commemoration of nature for the simple reason that nature is the very thing which grace perfects.
- Another Roman variation of Embertides, instituted by Pope Gelasius I in 494, is to use Ember Saturdays as the day to confer Holy Orders.* Apostolic tradition prescribed that ordinations be preceded by fast and prayer (see Acts 13:3), and so it seemed quite reasonable to place ordinations at the end of this fast period. Moreover, this allows the entire community to join the men in fasting and praying for God’s blessing upon their calling and to share their joy in being called.
And Personally Prayerful
- In addition to commemorating the seasons of nature, each of the four Embertides takes on the character of the liturgical season in which it is located. In fact, the Ember Days add to our living out the times of the Church’s calendar. For example, Ember Wednesday of Advent (a.k.a the “Golden Mass”), commemorates the Annunciation while the Ember Friday two days later commemorates the Visitation, the only time in Advent when this is explicitly done.
- Embertides thus afford us the opportunity to ruminate on a number of important things: the wondrous cycle of nature and the more wondrous story of our redemption, the splendid differentiation of God’s ordained servants — and lastly, the condition of our own souls. Traditionally, these were times of spiritual exercises and personal self-examination, the ancient equivalent of our modern retreats and missions. Little wonder, then, that a host of customs and folklore grew up around them affirming the special character of these days.
MORE ABOUT EMBER DAYS from: With Christ Through the Year by Rev. Bernard Strasser, O.S.B., illustrated by Sister M.A. Justina Knapp, O.S.B., Bruce Publishing Company, Copyright 1947.
While man’s prayer is often entirely a petition, liturgical prayer is primarily praise, thanksgiving, and adoration. A typical example of this is the Gloria of the Mass in which we note the gradual rise of praise of God until it reaches a wonderful climax: “Laudamus te. Benedicimus te. Adoramus te. Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.” (We praise Thee. We bless Thee. We adore Thee. We give Thee thanks for Thy great glory.) In her official liturgical prayers the Church constantly exhorts us to praise, adore, glorify, and thank God. Moreover, she has set aside special seasons to offer prayers of gratitude for the gifts of God. This happens four times a year on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the ember weeks which fall at the beginning of the four seasons of the year.
Ember days and ember weeks originated in early Christian days, and were first celebrated in Rome. Early in summer, in Pentecost week, the wheat was harvested. In order to thank God for this harvest, at the Offertory of the Mass a part (a so-called tithe, a tenth part) was offered for the benefit of the Church, the priests, and the poor. In like manner, it was customary to offer tithes of the other harvest in their respective seasons. When the grapes were harvested in September, there was another week of thanks, and similar offerings were made in December when the olive crop was gathered. The fruits of these harvests, wheat, wine, and oil, have been put to the highest possible use in the liturgy of the Church, for she uses them sacramentally, that is, as external signs of the inner grace imparted through her sacraments. She uses them sacramentally, that is, as external signs of the inner grace imparted through her sacraments. She uses bread and wine at the holy sacrifice of the Mass and at Holy Communion; she uses oil at Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Order, Extreme Unction, and for many of her sacramentals (baptismal water, blessing of bells, churches, chalices, etc.). Later, a fourth week of thanksgiving was added in the spring, when it is but natural for man to thank God for the awakening of nature, the budding of the first flowers, and the lengthened hours of daylight. Thus there was a portion to each season of the year a week of thanksgiving for the gifts of nature with which God has so generously enriched the world:
- In spring, during the week after Ash Wednesday, to give thanks for the rebirth of nature and for the gift of light.
- In summer, within the octave of Pentecost, to give thanks for the wheat crop.
- In autumn, beginning on the Wednesday immediately after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), to give thanks for the grape harvest.
- 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.
On ember days we thank God four times a year for all the gifts of nature, especially for those used by the Church in her sacraments and sacramentals. We also thank Him for the sacraments, administered to us under the external signs of these gifts of nature.
Since the late 5th century, the Ember Saturdays were also the preferred dates for ordinations. So during these times the Church had a threefold focus: (1) sanctifying each new season by turning to God through prayer, fasting and almsgiving; (2) giving thanks to God for the various harvests of each season; and (3) praying for the newly ordained and for future vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Father Norfolk and Bishop Swain