(Today’s post comes from the pen/keyboard of reader and commenter Rannygazoo.)
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I bought a lovely Catholic planner this year instead of an ordinary secular one. Usefully, it has both the traditional calendar of the Roman Rite and the current calendar that has been in use since 1969. I have greatly enjoyed having saints’ memorials and holy days of obligation noted for me. As I cruised through the planner, marking family birthdays and baptismal days, I encountered a curious designation—Ember days. Intrigued, I did a little research. I’d like to share the fascinating results with you.
Concisely, Ember days are three days of a single week (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) at the beginning of each natural season of the year. Thus, there are four Embertides: Spring (in the week following the first Sunday of Lent), Summer (in the week following Whitsunday or Pentecost), Fall (in the week following the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14), and Winter (in the week following St. Lucy’s day, December 13). These days in the supernatural calendar of the Church commemorate the natural seasons and goodness of the earth, and point our hearts and minds toward the mysteries they call to mind.
When, where and how did these days originate? Days of fasting and prayer predate the Church—the Apostles and first Christians fulfilled and altered the existing Jewish tradition. Palestinian Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays; Wednesdays in remembrance of Christ’s betrayal and Friday to commemorate His crucifixion. Roman Christians in the third century standardized some of these fast days according to the natural calendar both in emulation of Hebrew tradition and to Christianize concurrently celebrated pagan festivals. Gradually the Christians in Rome added Saturday to the Friday fast. It is told that St. Augustine consulted with St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan as to whether he should fast according to the customs of Rome or of Milan. Ambrose is reported to have answered, “When I am here, I do not fast on Saturday; when I am in Rome, I do. (Thus, the genesis of the saying, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”) Incidentally, in A.D. 494 Pope Gelasius I began the custom of clerical ordination on Ember Saturdays. Brilliant! When is there a better time to ordain priests than at the conclusion of universal periods of fasting?
So why have most of us never heard of Ember days? I have discovered no explicit reason for this but by the 20th century Ember Saturdays were no longer the normal day for ordinations. Apparently, without that “official” use these days began to fade from memory. The Embertides and their attendant fasting were still obligatory in the Church’s liturgical calendar until the entire calendar was changed in 1969. At that time individual national conferences of bishops were charged with arranging plans and times for celebrating something roughly equivalent to these traditional observations. Sadly, the bishops did not bother to do so.
Which is a great shame because there are (at least) three ways in which observation of the Embertides can tremendously enrich our lives:
- As a “natural” course correction. Most people today seem to view nature through one of two lenses: as a commodity to exploit and subdue, bending it to human will or, at the other extreme, viewing the earth and its animal and vegetable life as the moral equivalent of a person endowed with rights and then elevating it above humanity. The Ember days prompt us to view nature with humility, that is to say, recognizing our true relationship to God and His gift of the created world as recipient and steward, not tyrannical despoiler or votary of Gaia. Appropriate meditations to this end are Psalm 148, Psalm 100, and the Canticle of The Three Youths from the book of Daniel.
- As a spiritual “tune-up.” We all understand the value of the preventive maintenance schedules printed in the owner’s manual of our car and the benefit of regular check-ups with our doctor. If perishable material things benefit from regular attention, how much more will an immortal human soul? Examining the spiritual habits we have acquired (or haven’t) since our last “exam” will force us to face reality about our state of grace or sin. It is very easy to think we will “get around to” an in-depth analysis of our spiritual life. Embertide fasts are regularly occurring events that we can use as signals to remind us to take advantage of the sacrament of Penance.
- As clergy appreciation days. It is too easy to take the clergy for granted, especially if one lives where Catholic churches are plentiful. I live in a region that is not historically Catholic so one Catholic church per county is the norm and no Catholic church at all is not rare. But no matter where you live, observation of the Ember Saturdays as times of dedicated prayer for bishops, priests and religious would be a tremendous spiritual boost to our under-appreciated religious leaders and probably lead to an increase of vocations. Consider penning a handwritten note of appreciation for your local bishop, your priest(s), and any consecrated religious you are blessed to have in your parish. (Can you imagine the positive effects?!)
With just a little thought I am confident you can expand on each of these ideas. I hope you become as attached to the Ember days as I have. This season’s Embertide begins this Wednesday, March 12. Spread the word!
(And although fasting, prayer and penance are the motifs of these days, do not deny yourself the delight of reading my favorite source of information on the Ember days: the article entitled, “The Glow of the Ember Days” by Michael P. Foley, first printed in The Latin Mass Magazine (Vol. 17:4) and available online at Rorate Caeli. If you enjoy the article as much as I anticipate, you can find more examples of Mr. Foley’s intelligence, wit and style at his website: www.michaelpfoley.info.)