Ember Days

[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.

4 Responses to Ember Days

  • Ember Days are/were celebrated on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, making it the 15th, 17th, and 18th of this month, not the 15th, 16th, and 18th.

  • Kyle – Yeah, good catch. Friday is the traditional day of penance in the West, and that’s the 17th this year. Thanks also to DC for posting this.

  • Pray for the living and the dead.

    The Embertides are periods of prayer and fasting, with each day having its own special Mass.

    Forgive all injuries.

    The Ember Days are four series of Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays which correspond to the natural seasons of the year. Autumn brings the September, or Michaelmas, Embertide; winter, the Advent Embertide; Spring, the Lenten Embertide; and in summer, the Whit Embertide (named after Whitsunday, the Feast of Pentecost).

    Bear wrongs patiently.

    The English title for these days, “Ember,” is derived from their Latin name: Quatuor Temporum, meaning the “Four Times” or “Four Seasons.”

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