[This guest post was submitted by regular TAC commenter "Pinky" and is particularly timely as we near Christmas.]
“If virtue is a habit, perhaps it’s time to form some more habits around denial of appetite.” – DarwinCatholic
It has always been the practice of the Church to prepare for feast days with prayer and fasting. The opportunity to take part in one of the Church’s oldest traditions is approaching on the 15th, 16th, and 18th of December this year, the tradition of Ember days.
Ember days likely came into being in the years when the Catholic Church was expanding into pagan lands and Christianizing their rituals, although some have dated them back to the time of the Apostles. Further confusing the origin of the practice is the unknown derivation of the word “ember” itself: possibly from the Latin word tempor (time) or the Celtic word ymbren (seasonal cycle).
On the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of four weeks spaced throughout the year, the faithful have been encouraged to prayer, fasting, and partial abstinence (meat was allowed during the one meal except on Fridays or during Lent). These Ember weeks were standardized in 1095 to begin on the Wednesday following the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross (Sept.14) , the Feast of Saint Lucy (Dec.13), Ash Wednesday, and Pentecost. Ember Saturdays are popular days for ordinations.
Among the strongest supporters of Ember days were the sainted bishops Augustine and Charles Borromeo. For St. Augustine, fasting was linked to almsgiving as well as austerity:
First and foremost, clearly, please remember the poor, so that what you withhold from yourselves by living more sparingly, you may deposit in the treasury of heaven. Let the hungry Christ receive what the fasting Christian receives less of. Let the self-denial of one who undertakes it willingly become the support of the one who has nothing. Let the voluntary want of the person who has plenty become the needed plenty of the person in want. (Sermon 210)
St. Charles Borromeo was well-known for his asceticism, and promoted the practice of Ember days in his Archdiocese of Milan. The painting “St. Charles Borromeo at Supper”, by the 17th century Milanese painter Daniele Crespi, depicts the saint eating bread and water, lost in Scripture and prayer.
As with many traditions, Ember days faded out in the changes after the Second Vatican Council. They are still practiced in parts of Europe. In the US, they may sometimes be found as days of prayer for peace on newer calendars. We can still participate in this ancient tradition, practicing self-sacrifice and devotion in preparation for Christmas.