There are a lot of special days we know from music: Andy Williams sang of “Days of Wine and Roses,” Wang Chung sang of “Dance Hall Days,” and Don McLean, in “American Pie” lamented “the day the music died.” Likewise there was “Happy Days,” “New Year’s Day,” “Manic Monday,” “Saturday in the Park,” and “A Day in the Life.” Wow, that’s a lot of songs from the old days. “Those Were the Days My Friend”! Now, some of those songs are well known still; however, others, even though gems, have gotten lost in the passing of time.
The church has some days like these, too. Some days like Christmas, First Fridays, and holy days of obligation are well known. However, there are other sacred times, which, even though commended by the church, have gotten lost in modern times. These days are tucked away in church’s vault of spiritual treasures. In this regard, there is a special set of days (coming up this week) that I would like to commend to you; they are called Ember Days.
Four times a year the church observes a period of days called Ember Days, on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. These are days dedicated to voluntary abstinence and fasting as a form of penance and to giving thanks to God for his gifts to us. They are kind of like a penitential Thanksgiving day without the turkey and cranberry sauce.
Why are they called Ember Days? Well, according to one etymology, the word “ember” finds its origin in old Anglo-Saxon English word “ymber,” meaning recurring (specifically, recurring times of the year). December, November and September find their origin in this word root. That concept of recurrence was later extended to seasons of the year, and the seasons and times of the church’s year. Thus, in the course of the church year, the Ember Days , which in Latin are called “quator temporis” (meaning, “the four times”), recur in four distinct periods.
The timing of Ember Days in the church year is as follows:
In Advent, on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after the Feast of St. Lucy (Dec. 18, 20, 21 this year);
In Lent, on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday the week after Ash Wednesday;
In Easter season (in the broader sense) on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after Pentecost Sunday; and
In Ordinary Time on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
This pattern of Ember Days is commonly remembered using the mnemonic: Lucy, Ashes, Dove and Cross.
You may be thinking to yourself, “Why four times a year and why on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays?” That’s a great question. You see, a good portion of the origins of Ember Days tie to ancient Judaism. For example, in the book of the prophet Zechariah (8:19), we see the idea of having days of fasting set aside four times a year: “The fast days of the fourth, the fifth, the seventh, and the tenth months will become occasions of joy and gladness, and happy festivals for the house of Judah. So love faithfulness and peace!”
The church took that guidance but related it to the Christian calendar, worked it around our seasons, and arrived at our current observances.
The late Father John Hardon, a church scholar and theologian of some renown, said that quarterly timing Ember Days was “possibly occasioned by the agricultural feasts of ancient Rome; they came to be observed by Christians for the sanctification of the different seasons of the year.” So, in Roman times, as Christians converted from paganism, the church adapted some of the timing and themes of the Roman former ways of life, but geared them toward the one true God and moved them away from their pagan underpinnings.
The practice of Ember Days began in the first century during the time of the Apostles, and by the middle of the fifth century, the four sets of Ember Days were fully instituted and spread throughout the entire western Church.
What a difference a day makes
Regarding the basis of Wednesday, Friday and Saturday as Ember Days, this is likewise an adaptation. Jews in the time of Christ engaged in a fast every Monday and Thursday. You may recall the passage in Luke’s Gospel (18:12) when we see the Pharisee in the Temple comparing himself to the lowly tax collector, boasting “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” That braggart’s comment about fasting “twice a week” refers to that aforementioned Monday and Thursday fast.
Now, Christianity, in seeking to be distinct from Judaism, applied the fasting to Wednesday (the day Christ was plotted against by Judas), and Friday (the day Christ was put to death). Saturday was an Ember Day that was originally observed strictly in Rome with a special procession and Mass at St. Peter’s. When bishops of other dioceses would visit Rome with their entourages, they would observe the practice of the Saturday Ember Day, even though they wouldn’t do it in their home diocese (this practice yielded the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans”). By the fifth century, the practice of observing the Saturday Ember Day had spread to the entire church.
I would put forth that these recurring sets of days cause us to pause at different points in the year to slow down and draw closer to God via prayer and penance. Because they recur and repeat, they become part of the cycle of the year for us. You know, when things recur and repeat, they tend to stick with us. We get used to a cycle of events. Just like a song with a familiar melody that we hear over and over again. As it repeats and recurs we inhale all of its melody and lyrics into our brains. Soon, we can sing it by rote upon hearing the first few notes.
Same thing with TV shows or movies we watch over and over, or books that we read multiple times – by recurrence and repetition, they become part of our memory. I must confess, “Hey Jude,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Bette Davis Eyes” and most episodes of “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners” and “Seinfeld” are actually burned into a portion of my brain.
And so, recurrence and repetition are part of the beauty of the cycle of Ember Days. At different points, and different seasons, of each year we are reminded to turn back to God in thanksgiving and in a spirit of penance. And if the lyrics of songs, the plots of books and the cultural kitsch of TV shows can be inculcated into our memory, so too, can these sacred times of the year.
Life in the fast lane
The Ember Days are celebrated with fasting (no food between meals) and half-abstinence, meaning that meat is allowed at one meal per day. (If you observe the traditional Friday abstinence from meat, then you would observe complete abstinence on an Ember Friday.)
So, on these Ember Days, on a voluntary basis, Catholics are commended to observe the discipline of fasting (two small meals, one full meal), partial-abstinence on Wednesday and Saturday (meat is allowed at one meal per day), and full abstinence from meat on Friday. Receiving the sacrament of penance is also commended. The fasting practices of Ember Days had been mandatory until 1966, but made voluntary, but commendable, since then.
Thought to rem‘ember’
And so, this Advent may be the time to deepen your spiritual moorings by tapping into the beautiful tradition of Ember Days. Perhaps on Dec. 18, 20, and 21, you can observe the discipline of the Ember Days: Fast (and abstain from meat), attend daily Mass to give thanks to God (or if you can’t get to church, make a prayer of thanksgiving each morning on those days).
It is said that fasting and prayer remind us of our dependence on God. These Ember Days may be a time for you to spiritually strengthen yourself by getting away from the daily grind and taking some time on each of these days to draw close to God, on whom you, and all mankind, depend and for whom we give thanks and praise.
Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and Immaculate Conception in Marydel, Md.