Embers days – what are they? Those familiar with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass will perhaps be more acquainted with the concept, but the liturgical calendar for the Novus Ordo has them too (at least in Australia). What is their purpose and should we make a conscious effort to adopt them again?

History and meaning

The history of Ember Days is, admittedly, a bit obscure, and they are a peculiar feature of the Roman Church.

In its more ancient form, the Church had four Ember Weeks throughout the year, corresponding with the beginning of each season. The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of such weeks (the Ember Days) would be days of fasting, abstinence and prayer (following the same guidelines we do for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday). The purpose of them was to give thanks to God for the gifts of His creation and request assistance in using them well.

According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, originally they came into practice as part of the Church’s sanctification of pagan practices. Religious festivals were a key feature of ancient paganism, and there were four times a year that festivals of sacrifice would be celebrated, imploring the favour of Roman deities on the seeding and harvest of their crops. The Church, the encyclopedia states,

has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for good purpose.’

Thus, Ember Days were born, times where the seasons could be consecrated to the one true God.

It seems as though they came into practice in the first three centuries of the Church, although Pope Leo the Great (mid-fifth century) was of the opinion that they were apostolic in their origins.

An additional meaning became attached to them when Pope Gelasius (late-fifth century) allowed priestly ordinations to happen on Ember Days. This was fitting, since historically ordinations have been preceded by days of prayer and fasting (Acts 13:3).

Ember etymology

Obviously, the term “ember” in this context does not refer to anything fire-related. There are two possible linguistic origins of the word. It may originate from the old Anglo-Saxon word ymbren, which refers to a circle or revolution. Alternatively, it might be a corruption of the Latin phrase quatuor tempora, which means “four times”.

Modern usage

Prior to the introduction of the 1966 Missal, Ember Days were prescribed and mandatory. Since 1966, they are no longer considered obligatory but they are (theoretically) encouraged. The 1969 General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar states that it is up to the discretion of local bishops’ conferences to decide when and how many there would be:

In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the people, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan for their celebration. Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year. (§46)

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) decided that there would be two Ember Days, both on the first Fridays of Autumn and Spring.

Are they worth observing?

Absolutely. The human connection to and dependence on the earth is one of the most basic features of our existence. The offering of the “first-fruits” from the soil was an important aspect of ancient Jewish ritual, too (Deuteronomy 26:4-10).

Unless you have grown up farming, most people today (at least in the West) are quite disconnected from the feeling of dependency on creation, especially in these days of food being readily available at the mere touch of our phones. Ember Days harken back to a more rural time.

Observing Ember Days is a great way of acknowledging the abundance we often take for granted, thanking God for it, and consciously striving to live virtuously instead of simply as consumers.

Pope Francis has encouraged us to take up a new asceticism, where we ‘replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing’ (LS §9). Observing Ember Days once again is a powerful way of doing that. Since they have the added connection to priestly ordinations, observing them and offering prayer and fasting for the priests and seminarians of our local dioceses is another good reason to take them up again.