Remember the Ember Days?
I only learned about them recently, but older Catholics may recall these quarterly “mini-Lents” — special days of prayer and fasting to mark the four seasons of the year. The purpose of the Ember Days is to thank God for the gifts of nature and to pray for the good use of those gifts.
The roots of the Ember Days go back to the Old Testament. The Book of Zechariah describes the Jewish practice of fasting four times a year. The ancient Romans observed a lot of agricultural feasts, especially at seed time and harvest. Christians adapted these various traditions into the Ember Days, also called Rogation Days.
Traditionally, there are four sets of Ember Days, each consisting of a successive Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. In each season, they occur as follows:
Spring — after Ash Wednesday
Summer — after Pentecost Sunday
Fall — after the Sept. 14 Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Winter — after the Dec. 13 Feast of St. Lucy
There is a handy mnemonic device for remembering these: “Lenty, Penty, Crucy, Lucy.” Furthermore, folklore holds that the weather during the Ember Days foretells the weather for the next three months. So they are not only mini-Lents but also mini-Groundhog Days!
The Ember Days were prescribed for the entire Latin Church by Pope Gregory VII around 1085 and were a fixture of Catholic life for many centuries thereafter. They were removed from the Church’s official liturgical calendar in its revision following the Second Vatican Council. However, the Church continues to encourage occasional days of prayer and fasting outside of Lent.
The current norms for the liturgical year state, “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.”
The exact dates and structure of these days can be “adapted to the different regions and different needs of the faithful,” and special Masses may be celebrated where appropriate.
Though fully voluntary today, many Catholics still observe the traditional Ember Days in their homes or parishes. These days offer an opportunity to give thanks for the blessings of nature and to promote the just distribution of the earth’s fruitfulness. They connect us to the beauty and uniqueness of each particular season and remind us of our continuing need to do acts of penance and to seek God’s grace. The Ember Days are a Catholic cultural treasure, and they deserve a contemporary renaissance.
If you choose to observe them, this year’s autumnal Ember Days are Sept. 20, 22, and 23. Consider fasting and praying for a particular intention, such as the pope’s intention for September (for those living on the margins), for an increase in vocations, for the success of the Eucharistic Revival or for some other intention close to your heart.