This Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, the Church (in theory) celebrates the Fall Ember Days. Their official name in Latin is Quatuor Tempora, the four annual times of fast and abstinence.
Ember Days are a very old tradition. I recently listened to Pope Leo the Great’s sermons on the Fall fast; by his time (440-461), he believed it was something that began with the apostles, though we do not know. (Leo’s sermons, by the way, are available for free download at Librivox; they are easy to follow and full of spiritual riches.) The Ember Days were fast days set against the ancient Roman harvest ceremonies, one of many examples of taking a pagan practice and finding a way to turn it to Christ.
They take place on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Triumph of the Cross (Sept. 14), St. Lucy (December 13), Ash Wednesday, and Pentecost, thus linking them both to the turning of the seasons and to the bigger liturgical calendar.
The Triumph of the Cross, echoing the Jewish high holy days, sees an image of the Cross in the end of summer and approach of winter – and also in the harvest. The feast of the third-century virgin martyr St. Lucy – whose name means light; who saw with the light of faith, so that she would consecrate her virginity to God, give all her possessions to the poor, and be willing to die for Christ; and who had her physical eyes gouged out as a punishment for her faith – is a fine introduction to the darkness of winter and the Christian’s way of seeing through it to the light of Christ. Lent is a way of sowing our own spiritual harvest and finding rebirth in total consecration to Christ. And Pentecost symbolizes the true bounty of summer.
At each of these times, the Church pauses to fast. It is a nice little spiritual discipline, an opportunity to consecrate the coming season to Christ, to ask his blessings, and to sprinkle fasting throughout the year. As is so often the case in the traditions of the Church, it is prudently measured: three fast days, with a break on Thursday, is hard, but not too hard; four times a year is enough to make fasting part of life, but not too much.
Though we are not farmers, my family finds that there really are distinct seasons in life. “Ember” is from an Old English word for “cycle”: it is nice to mark the turning of the seasons with a quiet time of fasting.
In the liturgical reform after Vatican II, local churches were given the option of rethinking how exactly Ember Days would be celebrated. This flexibility makes good sense. For example, the post-Vatican II 1983 Code of Canon Law, says, “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday” (can. 1251).
In different places, different things make sense. In the United States, having lobster on Friday, for example, is not a very good way of making Friday a penitential day – whereas in places where meat is rarely part of the diet anyway, perhaps a different form of abstinence would make better sense. We are still called to give something up every Friday, but different places might want to celebrate that penance in different ways.
In the case of Ember Days, the post-Vatican II norms (the Normae Universales de anno liturgico et de calendario) state, “In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the people, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan of their celebration. Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year. On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occasions that is best suited to the intentions of the petitioners.”
In other words, Vatican II did not abolish Ember Days. It just gave national bishops’ conferences the option to think through how best to celebrate them in each country. Unfortunately, as has too often happened, the bishops decided to do absolutely nothing, and so most Catholics are ignorant of this wonderful tradition – and norm of the post-Vatican II liturgy.
But there is no reason we cannot embrace these traditions ourselves, and make them the nourishment of our own spiritual lives and rebirth of a Catholic culture.