What are Ember days?
Ember days, are three days at the beginning of each of the four seasons that the Church has traditionally set aside as days of fasting, abstinence, and prayer in thanksgiving for the blessings of the last season and in petition for the next.
Historically, it is likely that the Ember days were celebrated from the earliest days of the Church – after all, it is a tradition adapted from the Old Testament:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore, love truth and peace. (Zechariah 8:19)
Pope Gelasius, who was pope from the year 492-496, speaks of the Ember days (or in the Latin, the Quatuor Tempora, or four- times.) We know of their practice in Rome at this time, and the practice spread throughout the Church until they were officially prescribed by Pope Saint Gregory VII during his pontificate, 1073-1085.
When are the Ember Days?
Sant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia Ut sit in angaria quarta sequens feria.
This old rhyme was long used to aid in remembering the dates of the Ember days. It is translated:
Holy Cross, Lucy, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost are when the quarter holidays follow.
The dates of the Ember days each year can be figured from the dates of these feasts.
The Summer Ember days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the feast of St. Lucy on December 13th.
The Autumn Ember days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday the week after Ash Wednesday, in the first full week of Lent.
The Winter Ember days fall on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost.
The Spring Ember days fall the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the feast of the Holy Cross on September 14th.
It might be easier to just remember “Lucy, Ashes, Dove, and Cross.”
Practicing Ember Days
While no longer mandatory, it is nonetheless beneficial to voluntarily practice the observation of Ember days each year. It is one of many ways we can heed the words of Our Lady of Fatima:
“Sacrifice yourselves for sinners and say many times, especially when you make a sacrifice, ‘O Jesus, this is for love of Thee, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.’”
St. Basil the Great says of fasting:
Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness.
The basic observance of fasting on Ember days is similar to Ash Wednesday or Good Friday – one primary meal and two lesser meals. On Ember Wednesday and Ember Saturday meat is be allowed in the main meal only. On Ember Friday the traditional practice of abstinence from meat is observed at all meals. Those who are unable for health or age reasons to participate in the full fast should perform some other penance.
While the fast is similar to that of Lent, there is a different focus to our prayers. Unlike the sombre fasts of Lent, as we prepare for and participate in Christ’s suffering on the cross, the Ember days give us an opportunity to fast with greater joy. While there has certainly always been the component of penance for our sins and a resolve to do better in the coming season, the focus of thanksgiving for the gifts received in the previous season and the prayer of petition for a fruitful coming season is a very important part of the Ember days. Our hearts should be filled with joy at the thought of the great love and care Our Heavenly Father shows for His Children. While joyful music and celebration would be out of place on Good Friday, they are fitting in the celebration of the Ember days, even as we practice the virtue of fasting.
Another important aspect of the Ember days, stemming from the practice of ordinations being held on Ember Saturdays for many years, is to pray for priests and for new vocations. In these days when our priests are so under attack both from the world and the devil, setting aside days each year to pray and fast for our priests is even more important than ever. While these intentions should be in all of our daily prayers, we do well to make special note on the Ember days.
Finally, let us not forget those less fortunate as we give thanks for our blessings. The Ember days have also always traditionally been days when the fruits of the harvest would be shared with the poor. Even though few of us have harvests to share, there are still many ways we can share what we have with those who have less, whether by donating money, or time, or even those things in our homes that we no longer use.
The world is drifting farther and farther away from God, and as it does it is becoming harder for us to live a Christian life. Incorporating the feasts and fasts of the Church, such as the Ember days, will help us to grow in grace and to keep our focus on Christ.