Since the earliest centuries, the Church in Rome has celebrated special days of fasting spread over the year, the ‘Ember Days’. They are today a feature of the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, although they are not found in the Universal Calendar of the Ordinary Form.
They are also found in the Calendar of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, having been preserved in Anglican usage over the centuries.
The origin of the term English term ‘ember’ is unclear; it may derive from the Old English ‘ymbren’, meaning a circuit or revolution. Other European languages use some version of the Latin term, ‘Quatuor tempora’, ‘four times’. These celebrations may have been brought to England by St Augustine of Canterbury, and seem to have become established here before they spread from Rome to France and elsewhere.
The days consist of Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of a particular week. The weeks are the last full week of Advent (associated with St Lucy’s feastday, 13th December), the first full week of Lent (that is, after Ash Wednesday), the week following Pentecost, and a week after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (14th September). (This was adjusted to fall slightly later in 1960: since then the Ember Wednesday falls between 18th to 24th September.)
Their dates can be remembered by this old mnemonic:
Sant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angaria quarta sequens feria.
Holy Cross, Lucy, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost,
are when the quarter holidays follow.
The days have special Masses assigned to them, an extra reading on the Wednesday, and five extra readings on the Saturday. The Mass of each Saturday Ember day is structured like the Easter Vigil, with the five ‘prophecies’ (Old Testament readings), followed by the Epistle, Gospel, and the rest of Mass as usual. There is also a chant and a prayer between each reading.
In this way, Mass is preceded by a service of readings, prayers, and chants. Originally, the readings would have formed a ‘vigil’ during the night, with Mass celebrated at dawn on the Sunday.
The Ember Days are penitential, with many references fasting, but their place in the liturgical calendar gives them distinct characters. As they have come down to us, the Ember Week of Lent, coming early in Lent, intensifies the spirit of Lent. The Ember Week of Christmas, which is more ancient than the Season of Advent, is a preparation for the celebration of Christmas. The Ember Week following Pentecost draws us more intensely into the meaning of Pentecost. The September Ember Week has a particular reference to thanksgiving for the harvest.
The penance of Pentecost and September is thus associated with thanksgiving; indeed this is to a large extent true of all the Ember Days. As the liturgical commentator, Fr Pius Parsch, expressed it:
Lent is our annual retreat, while the Ember Days serve as quarterly check-ups. A grave and earnest mood comes over Mother Church, but there are no tears or mourning. Fasting is not so much an expression of penitence and sorrow as a joyous tithe to God, and an incentive to almsgiving.
(Pius Parsch, The Church’s Year of Grace, Vol I pp104f)
In this way the Ember Days recall the practice of the Old Covenant:
Thus saith 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 Juda, joy, and gladness, and great solemnities: only love ye truth and peace.
This is reflected in the chants. The fifth reading of each Ember Saturday is taken from the story from the Book of Daniel of the preservation of the ‘Three Young Men’, who had refused to worship an idol, in the ‘Fiery Furnace’. This is followed immediately by their song of praise and thanksgiving, one of the most lyrical chants of the repertoire. For the Ember Saturday of Pentecost, this is abbreviated, and followed by the Gloria in Excelsis.
Another historical feature of the Ember days is their use for ordinations. The series of readings on Ember Saturday could introduce ordinations to a succession of minor and major orders.
While the obligation for fasting on Ember Days is no longer imposed by Canon Law, they are a particularly ancient and rich part of the Church’s liturgical patrimony. They give us today an opportunity to enter more deeply the spirit of the liturgical seasons, the observance of which is a key part of a Catholic’s formation. As the Second Vatican Council declared:
in the various seasons of the year and according to her traditional discipline, the Church completes the formation of the faithful by means of pious practices for soul and body, by instruction, prayer, and works of penance and of mercy.