I was brought to consider writing upon these forthcoming days by one NLM reader who informed me of his own project in this regard, including an article to soon be published in an upcoming edition of The Latin Mass Magazine.
What are Ember Days?
At four periods of the year, the traditional liturgical calendar of the Church marks ember days. These days are attached to the different natural seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter and were days of fast and abstinence -- and this was so up until the time of Pope Paul VI when they were not included in the times of mandatory fast and/or abstinence. (See the decree on Fast and Abstinence, Paenitemini of Feb. 17, 1966.)
The ember days occured at the beginning of the seasons and their purpose "was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy." (Catholic Encyclopedia).
Historical Roots and Considerations
The Catholic Encyclopedia further considers their origins:
The immediate occasion was the practice of the heathens of Rome. The Romans were originally given to agriculture, and their native gods belonged to the same class. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding... The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. At first the Church in Rome had fasts in June, September, and December; the exact days were not fixed but were announced by the priests. The "Liber Pontificalis" ascribes to Pope Callistus (217-222) a law ordering the fast, but probably it is older. Leo the Great (440-461) considers it an Apostolic institution. When the fourth season was added cannot be ascertained, but Gelasius (492-496) speaks of all four. This pope also permitted the conferring of priesthood and deaconship on the Saturdays of ember week--these were formerly given only at Easter. Before Gelasius the ember days were known only in Rome, but after his time their observance spread. They were brought into England by St. Augustine; into Gaul and Germany by the Carlovingians. Spain adopted them with the Roman Liturgy in the eleventh century. They were introduced by St. Charles Borromeo into Milan. The Eastern Church does not know them. The present Roman Missal, in the formulary for the Ember days, retains in part the old practice of lessons from Scripture in addition to the ordinary two: for the Wednesdays three, for the Saturdays six, and seven for the Saturday in December. Some of these lessons contain promises of a bountiful harvest for those that serve God.
Archdale King comments accordingly in The Liturgy of the Roman Church:
Quattuor Tempora or Ember Days, were local institutions of the Church of Rome in the 5th century... They appear at first to have had no fixed date, and the Pope announced their celebration some time in advance.
Josef Jungmann also deals with the issue in his work, The Early Liturgy to the time of Gregory the Great:
These [the Ember seasons] are among the most ancient institutions of the Roman liturgy. We say quattuor tempora [the four times], but the most ancient sources of the Roman liturgy speak only of three such times. Three times a year a sort of retreat period was held... during the months of June, September and December one week was especially devoted to prayer and fasting. Wednesday and Friday were kept as days of fast, with the fasting continuing on Saturday. And then on Saturday evening a vigil was held in much the same way as the Easter vigil, with twelve lessons and with corresponding songs and prayers. This vigil service continued far into the night... These Ember weeks...were spaced three months apart, in the summer, in autumn and in winter...
Jungmann primarily attributes the ember days to be days of recollection and spiritual renewal, and secondarily days of thanksgiving for the harvest.
Various sources then attribute the ember seasons as being of early origin within the Roman liturgical tradition, which brings us to a first proposal. Their loss from the modern liturgical calendar of the Roman church, very much like the loss of the ancient subdiaconate, is surely something that merits re-visitation by the Church, not merely for reasons of antiquity and tradition (though that is indeed a significant enough reason), but also because Ember Days bring the liturgical and natural seasons into further accord (which is advantageous in seeking to live out a liturgical life), they remind us of our dependency upon God for his abundant blessings and of the need for thanksgiving, and they further provide corporate opportunities for prayer and penance – something in great need of recovery within the Western church.
We are fortunate, however, that their memory and marking is at least maintained in the traditional calendar of the Church, though without the obligation for fast and abstinence. And herein lay the second proposal. While that obligation no longer canonically exists, it would seem meritorious if Catholics of the Latin rite, particularly those who follow the calendar of the more ancient Roman use, but even those who don’t, were to mark these Ember seasons by resuming what was formally obligatory now at least as a pious and devotional exercise; namely by personally resuming the tradition of observing fast and abstinence on these days and uniting it with the requisite spirit of prayer that should accompany such sacrificial acts.
[To give encouragement to each other, might I recommend the comments be used to speak of our support and/or plans in this regard, whether it was already planned, or in specific response to this proposal.]
Further to this topic, Professor Laszlo Dobszay submitted the following excerpt from his upcoming book on the renovation of the Roman rite on this topic:
The abolition of the Ember days was the “assasination” of a very early tradition. We learn from the sermons of Leo the Great how devotedly the Roman church kept this observance in the 5th century. “Et traditio decrevit, et consuetudo formavit” – said the “most liturgical” Pope. And: “ideo ipsa continentiae observantia quattuor est assignata temporibus, ut in idipsum totius anni redeunte decursu, cognosceremus nos indesinenter purificationibus indigere...”
Their roots go back to the Old Testament. Strictly speaking, they did not pertain to the liturgical year, but rather to the sanctification of civil life, and so they correspond explicitly even to the demands of modern times.
The difficulty with them was that they became primarily fasting days which could not be observed in the rush of working days. They defined the texts of the liturgical day, but they had but few links to the life of individuals or of Christian society. It was so especially since three of the four “Quattuor Temporum” weeks were integrated in solemn liturgical seasons (Advent, Lent, Pentecost), and only the three days in September retained the original feature: to mark the quarters of the year).
As much as the revitalisation of these days seems difficult today, with proper instruction and a good practice their meaning could be re-established. The four times three days are, as it were, the decima of the twelve months of the year. Adrift among various occupations, cares, frailties – and God’s benefits – the Church stops the flow of time and reflects in a religious way upon all that happens with and to us.
I think the solution would be to give back the half-liturgical character to these days. Though they have their proper liturgy, they should be related to our life by observances attached to the liturgy. We cannot change the fact that their liturgical material is seasonal in Advent, Lent, and Pentecost, and it is special only in September. But attached to the Mass there could be special devotions:
- on the four Ember Wednesdays a devotion of thanksgiving may close the day (“Exultate Deo adjutori nostro”);
- on Ember Fridays there would be devotions of satisfaction for the sins of the quarter year with the possibility of confessions all throughout the day; it should also be the day of optional expiatory fasting (“accepta tibi sint... nostri dona jejunii, quae expiando nos tua gratia dignos efficiant...”);
- the Ember Saturdays could be regarded as special days of Christian charity, of alms-giving (“esuriamus paululum, dilectissimi, et aliquantulum, quod juvandis possit prodesse pauperibus, nostrae consuetudini subtrahamus”).
If these devotions are attached to the evening Masses, the liturgy itself could acquire a special focus or emphasis in the life of our communities. For that it is also necessary, of course, that the sermon on the previous Sunday should explain (as those of Leo the Great did) the meaning of this observance.