I hope you read the title of this post to the tune of Silver Bells. The Bing Crosby version, naturally.
Have you ever heard about the Ember days, observed for most of the history of the Church prior to the late 20th century? If you haven’t, don’t feel bad. Like many traditional practices in the Church laden with deep meaning, Ember days have been chucked down the Catholic memory hole.
But fear not! This is why God created the Internet: so we can find all the neat things about Catholicism that are worth knowing and sharing.
Today is the first of the December Ember days (no, that wasn’t an echo). For more on the tradition, we go to the ever-informative Fisheaters:
Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Gaudete Sunday (3rd Sunday of Advent) are known as “Advent Embertide,” and they come near the beginning of the Season of Winter (December, January, February). Liturgically, the readings for the days’ Masses follow along with the general themes of Advent, opening up with Wednesday’s Introit of Isaias 45: 8 and Psalm 18:2 :
Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the Just: let the earth be opened and bud forth a Savior. The heavens show forth the glory of God: and the firmament declareth the work of His hands.
Wednesday’s and Saturday’s Masses will include one and four Lessons, respectively, with all of them concerning the words of the Prophet Isaias except for the last lesson on Saturday, which comes from Daniel and recounts how Sidrach, Misach, and Abdenago are saved from King Nabuchodonosor’s fiery furnace by an angel. This account, which is followed by a glorious hymn, is common to all Embertide Saturdays but for Whit Embertide.
The Gospel readings for the three days concern, respectively, the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-28), Visitation (Luke 1:37-47), and St. John the Baptist’s exhorting us to “prepare the way of the Lord and make straight His paths” (Luke 3:1-6).
The Natural Season
Psalm 147:12, 16-17
“Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem:
praise thy God, O Sion.
Who giveth snow like wool:
scattereth mists like ashes.
He sendeth his crystal like morsels:
who shall stand before the face of his cold?”
Winter is a time of reflection, when human activity is stilled and snow blankets the world with silence. For the Christian, Winter symbolizes Hope: though the world now appears lifeless and makes us think of our own mortality, we hope in our resurrection because of the Resurrection of the One Whose Nativity we await now. How providential that the Christ Child will be born at the beginning of this icy season, bringing with Him all the hope of Spring! Also among our Winter feasts are the Epiphany and Candlemas, two of the loveliest days of the year, the first evoked by water, incense, and gold; the latter by fire…
Yes, despite the typical, unimaginative view of Winter as a long bout with misery, the season is among the most beautiful and filled with charms. The ephemeral beauty of a single snowflake… the pale blue tint of sky reflected in snow that glitters, and gives way with a satisfying crunch under foot… skeletal trees entombed in crystal, white as bones, cold as death, creaking under the weight of their icy shrouds… the wonderful feeling of being inside, next to a fire, while the winds whirl outside… the smell of burning wood mingled with evergreen… warm hands embracing your wind-bitten ones… the brilliant colors of certain winter birds, so shocking against the ocean of white… the wonderfully long nights which lend themselves to a sense of intimacy and quiet! Go outside and look at the clear Winter skies ruled by Taurus, with the Pleiades on its shoulder and Orion nearby… Such beauty!
Some fantastic imagery, to be sure. But it still leaves us with the question: what is an ember day?
Four times a year, the Church sets aside three days to focus on God through His marvelous creation. These quarterly periods take place around the beginnings of the four natural seasons 1 that “like some virgins dancing in a circle, succeed one another with the happiest harmony,” as St. John Chrysostom wrote (see Readings below).
These four times are each kept on a successive Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and are known as “Ember Days,” or Quatuor Tempora, in Latin. The first of these four times comes in Winter, after the the Feast of St. Lucy; the second comes in Spring, the week after Ash Wednesday; the third comes in Summer, after Pentecost Sunday; and the last comes in Autumn, after Holy Cross Day. 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.
For non-Latinists, it might be easier to just remember “Lucy, Ashes, Dove, and Cross.”
These times are spent fasting and partially abstaining (voluntary since the new Code of Canon Law) in penance and with the intentions of thanking God for the gifts He gives us in nature and beseeching Him for the discipline to use them in moderation. The fasts, known as “Jejunia quatuor temporum,” or “the fast of the four seasons,” are rooted in Old Testament practices of fasting four times a year:
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.
The late Father Peter Carota at the blog Traditional Catholic Priest offered some additional historical information on Ember days:
The Ember days are true Catholic tradition dating actually dating back to the Apostles, (Pope Leo The Great claims it was instituted by the Apostles). Pope Callistus (217-222) in the “Liber Pontificalis” has laws ordering all to observe a fast three times a year to counteract the hedonistic and pagan Roman rites praying for:
- a good harvest (June),
- a good vintage (September),
- a good seeding in December.
By the time of Pope Gelasius, (492-496), he already writes about there being four times a years, including Spring. He also permitted the conferring of priesthood and deaconship on the Saturdays of Ember week. This practice was mostly celebrated around Rome, from Pope Gelasius’ time, they began to spread throughout the Church.
St. Augustin brought them to England and the Carolingians into Gaul and Germany. In the eleventh century, Spain adopted them.
It was not until Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), that these Ember days were prescribed for the whole Catholic Church as days of fast and abstinence. He placed these “four mini Lents” consisting of three days; Wednesday, Friday and Saturday:
- after St. Lucy’s Feast Dec. 13,
- After Ash Wednesday,
- following Whitsunday, (Pentecost),
- and after Sept. 14, the Exaltation of the Cross.
The purpose of these “mini Lents” were to pray, fast and to thank God for the gifts He gives us through nature. They follow the four seasons of the year with the beauty and uniqueness of each particular season. They are here for us to teach us to use, with moderation, what God gives us through nature, and to also share these gifts with the poor.
So what does this mean for you?
Well, because of the changes in Church law, not a whole lot. At least not officially. The mandatory observation of Ember days was excised from Church practice during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. But as a voluntary practice, there is much that is salutary in observing the Ember days of the Church.
How do we observe Ember days?
Today, Friday, and Saturday are all Ember days. This means on Wednesday and Saturday, we observe partial fast and abstinence – two small meatless meals, and one full meal that can include meat.
On Friday, we may take two small meals and one full meal, but observe total abstinence even at the main meal. This is identical to the currently observed fasts of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Also worth noting: Christmas Eve is traditionally a day of fast and total abstinence as well.
These days, I’ve noticed more and more people are advocating fasting as a counter-measure in today’s troubling times. I don’t know about you, but as a typically indulgent American, I was never been very good at fasting until I started practicing it for health reasons, but it’s still a challenge. But the way I see it, there’s no point in continuing to put off the inevitable penance that I’m going to have to do for being a big, fat sinner. To say nothing about making reparations for the increasingly hostile darkness of a world steeped in its own sins.
Fasting isn’t going to get easier at some point in the future when I get “holier.” In fact, I’m guessing the latter isn’t going to happen until I master the former. I don’t think there’s ever been a time where fasting and penance are more needed than right this moment. We can’t rely on others to do it for us. Gotta cowboy up and put our mortification where our mouth is.
Originally published on Dec 17, 2014. This post has been updated.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.