Fr John Flader: Ember days linked to fasting, abstaining

25 Feb 2009

By The Record

Many years ago I recall observing Ember Days, associated, as I remember, with the beginning of Lent and other times of the year. Can you remind me what they were and tell me whether they still exist?

Fr John Flader

The Ember Days were three days of prayer and fasting observed four times a year, coinciding roughly with the beginning of the four seasons of the calendar.
While we don’t hear much about them any more, they do still exist. And they have a long and fascinating history.
The name ember in English comes either from the Latin tempora, meaning seasons, or, more likely, from the Anglo-Saxon word ymbren, meaning a circuit or revolution. The Council of Aenham in England, convoked by King Ethelred in 1009, refers to “the fasts of the four seasons, which are called imbren”. Also part of the Anglo-Saxon terminology was ymbren-dagas, Ember Days. The origin of the Ember Days probably goes back to the time of the early Romans, when people involved in agriculture had the custom of praying to their gods and goddesses to provide a productive sowing in December, a plentiful harvest in June and a rich vintage in September. While it is not certain, the Church may have taken over the custom and christianised it. In any case, at the time of Pope Callistus (217-222), a fast was prescribed in June, September and December of each year. Pope Leo the Great (440-461) considered the fast to have originated from the Apostles.
It is not certain when the fourth season was added but the earliest mention of it is in the writings of Philastrius, bishop of Brescia, who died around 387 (De haeres., 119). He also connects the Ember Days with the great Christian festivals.
Pope Gelasius (492-496) too speaks of all four seasons and suggests ordaining men to the priesthood and the diaconate on the Saturdays of Ember Weeks, a practice which has continued since then.
The priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, who celebrate the Tridentine Rite or Extraordinary Form of the Mass, are still ordained wherever possible on those days.
Before Pope Gelasius the Ember Days were known only in Rome. They were introduced in England by St Augustine of Canterbury at the beginning of the seventh century, in Gaul and Germany in the following centuries and in Spain in the eleventh century. They are not known in the Eastern Church.
The Ember Days were prescribed for the universal Church by Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) to be observed on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after December 13 (the feast of St Lucy), after Ash Wednesday, after the feast of Pentecost and after September 14, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The days were to be observed by prayer, fasting and abstaining from meat in order to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach people to make use of these gifts with moderation and to assist the needy. The Ember Days are still observed liturgically in the Tridentine Rite, but the obligation of fasting and abstaining, while encouraged, is no longer strictly required.
There are additional readings in Mass for those days in the Tridentine Rite, some of them promising a plentiful harvest for those who serve God. At present, a shorter version of the readings authorised by Pope John XXIII is often used.
In 1966, by the Decree Paenitemini, Pope Paul VI declared that the Ember Days were no longer to be days of fast and abstinence.
With the revision of the liturgical calendar in 1969, the Holy See left it up to the Bishops’ Conference of each country to determine whether and how the Ember Days should be celebrated.
In their Plenary meeting in November 2007, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, in response to a request from the Knights of the Southern Cross for a day of prayer for good seasons, recommended the introduction of two Rogation Days of prayer and fasting, to be observed each year on or about June 21 and September 21, the two solstices.
The National Liturgical Council has prepared materials to be used in the liturgy on these days.