For most of human history, men have structured their lives around the natural seasons and the demands of food production, sowing in the spring, reaping in the autumn, harvesting the olive in winter, and so on. Indeed, primitive man’s natural religion—his un-evangelized, intuitive glimpse of his Creator—always seems to have followed the cycle of the seasons, with festivals and prayers at the solstices, at seed-time, and at the harvest. Though obviously inadequate, this season-based worship contained much that was salutary: a sense of wonder before the mysteries of growth and creation; a feeling of creaturely humility; a sense of the dependence of all things upon the divine.
Our Lord himself talked to us in terms drawn from agriculture, viticulture, shepherding, and the like; in fact, scripture is replete with agricultural references and metaphors. Hence the Church, who by her faith reconciles, perfects, and fulfils all man’s good religious instincts, and all his striving after God, has always sought to “baptize” the natural spirituality of the seasons and of food production. Two very ancient means by which she has done this are the Ember Days and the Rogation Days. As we shall see, both the Ember Days and the Rogation Days remain part of the liturgy of the Church; and yet they have almost entirely disappeared from Catholic life since the 1960s, perhaps because they have no set, clear place in the Church’s revised calendar, nor any specific Masses or offices in that form.
Continuing my study of lost riches from the old liturgy (I have written about Septuagesima and the Pentecost Octave on previous occasions), I want to consider the history of these two sets of days, their value and their purpose, and how the usus antiquior celebrated them, in order to suggest ways of reviving them today. In this post, I focus on the Ember Days.
The Ember Days are four sets of three fasting days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) that fall roughly at each of the quarters of the year: respectively, on the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays after Gaudete Sunday in Advent, after the First Sunday of Lent, after Pentecost Sunday, and after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the 14th September. These days all bear two main themes: penitence and seasonal thanksgiving linked to the cycle of the year. As we shall see, what links these two themes is humility: humility before God’s creative power, and hence humility about our creaturely sinfulness. In Latin the days are called the Quattuor Tempora, ‘the four times’; their English name—“Ember”—is derived from the Old English ‘ymbrendæg’ (“circle/revolution day”).
The Ember Days of Advent, Pentecost, and in September are very ancient indeed. The 15th-century Liber Pontificalis claims on good grounds that Pope Callistus (r.217-222) ordered the observance of these original three sets of Ember Days. One of his successors, Pope St. Leo the Great (r.440-461) says that the Ember Days are of apostolic origin—that is, they find their origin in the earliest days of the Church. In any case, since first they were instituted, each set of Ember Days has celebrated a particular harvest: at Advent, the faithful gave thanks for the olive-harvest; during the days of Pentecost, for the early wheat harvest; and in the days of September, for the grape harvest (the vintage)—each one a harvest of produce used in the sacraments.
Tradition holds that the papacy instituted the Ember Days to supplant pagan Roman agricultural festivals. However, the days were clearly designed to stand in continuity with Jewish worship, too: early Roman liturgical books call the Ember-tides of Pentecost, of September, and Advent respectively the “fast of the fourth month,” “the fast of the seventh month,” and “the fast of the tenth month,” following Zechariah 8:19—which is itself part of a reading on the Ember Saturday of September. Zechariah says that these fasts are to be “joyful” occasions: and as thanksgiving fasts, the Ember Days perpetuate this idea of joyful fasting.
The Ember Days of Lent are younger, but still early: Pope Gelasius (r.492-496) speaks of all four sets of Ember Days. The Lenten days are not (of course) thanksgivings for a harvest, but rather for the gift of light and the lengthening days. Pope Gregory VII (r.1073-1085) prescribed the Ember Days for the whole Church, and set their dates definitively.
Ember Saturdays are also traditional days for ordinations: in the year 494, Pope Gelasius prescribed that the orders of priest and deacon be conferred on those days only (plus—if I understand him correctly—the Saturday before Laetare Sunday), around evening-time. This tradition of using the Ember Days for the sacrament of Holy Orders takes its inspiration from Acts 13:3, which describes prayer and fasting before two ordinations. Indeed, in Gelasius’ day the Roman faithful used to keep a fasting night-vigil Mass on Ember Saturdays; this Mass had 12 lections, and lasted into the following Sunday. In more recent centuries, pre-Reform versions of the Roman missal provided two forms of Mass for each ember Saturday: a longer form to be used for ordination Masses, with seven readings; and a shorter form for optional use at other Masses, with only three readings. Additionally, in recent centuries the Ember Days were popular times for making one’s confession.
Ember Day Liturgies
As we turn now to look at the old liturgy of the Ember Days in detail, we will see that each set contains a web of sub-themes. The Ember Days are days of penitence and fasting; but also days which sanctify the natural religiosity of the agricultural year: they express humility before the wonder of creation, man’s dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit, and thanksgiving for the goods of the earth. Relatedly, the Ember Days also draw on the timeless thought that the agricultural and viticultural arts are symbols of peace. Lastly, three of the four sets of Ember Days—those of Advent, Lent, and Pentecost—also bear the themes of their liturgical seasons (though I shall not say much about those well-known themes today).
First: as mentioned, the Ember Days remind us that all things derive their life and growth from the Holy Spirit. Each set of days recalls the Old Testament’s promises of abundance and peace for the Jewish people, promises by which the peace of Christ was foretold. On the Wednesday of Advent, the famous reading, Isaiah 2:2-5, speaks of peoples’ beating their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks. On the Wednesday of September (for the vintage), Amos 9:13-15 says that “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.” On the Saturday of Lent, we have Deuteronomy 26:12-19, in which Moses asks the people to thank God for giving them a land of milk and honey. On the Friday of Pentecost, Joel 2:23-24; 26-27 is read: “‘Rejoice,’ says God, ‘for you shall have rain and abundant food.’” On the Saturday, we have promises of spirit-worked wonders from Joel 2:28-32, and the earlier part of Deuteronomy 26. On the Ember Wednesday of Pentecost (for the early wheat harvest) the Gospel of John (6:44-52—in which Jesus says “I am the bread of life.”) shows how the Old Testament’s promises of abundance were pointing to the Incarnation.
As we would expect, the Ember Days of Pentecost bring out the connection between living things and the life-giving creator Spirit in an especially powerful way. As one alleluia verse of Wednesday, Psalm 32:6, puts it: “the heavens were made by the word of God, and all their hosts by the breath [spiritu] of his mouth,” and as one reading on the Friday says: “It is the Spirit that gives life: the flesh avails nothing” (John 6:63).
This leads us to the theme of humility, and the idea that we, as fragile mortals, depend upon God just as do all other parts of nature. Humility is a recurrent theme in all Catholic liturgy, of course, but the Ember Days give it an especial resonance, linking us mortals to the rest of the living, growing world. As the oration of the Wednesday of September says: “We ask, O Lord, that you sustain our fragile nature by the salve of your mercy, that what is weakened by its present condition [sua conditione atteritur] may be restored by your clemency.” One of the graduals that day (Psalm 112:5-7) asks, “Who is like the lord our God, who lives on high, and looks upon the humble things in heaven and earth?” (This reading succeeds the reading from Amos, above); and one of the orations of Lent requests “that by your gift we may merit to be humble in prosperity and safe in adversity.” On the Wednesday of Lent, the gradual and tract implore God, “See my humility” (Psalm 24:18). Our very lowness and smallness lead us to a joyful, wondrous gratitude before the gifts of God, the author of nature.
Mercy and Joy
As mentioned, the theme of humility ties together the joyful and the penitential aspects of the Ember Days, which are rich in language of a kind that we today hear only in Lent. There are Embertide prayers that talk of our being “justly afflicted for our sins” (e.g., on the Saturday of Advent) and prayers for the efficacy of our fast. Readings such as Mark 9:19-28 (Jesus explains that some demons can only be cast out with prayer and fasting) redouble our motivation for the fast. We also have gospels about repentance and the mercy of Christ: for example, Luke 36-50 on the Friday of September, in which Jesus forgives the penitent woman who washes his feet with her hair, and John 5:1-15 on the Friday of Lent’s Embertide, in which Jesus heals the man waiting at the pool. Other readings, like Ezekiel 18:20-28 on the Friday of Lent, and Micah 7:14-16;18-20 also tell of God’s mercy.
Only the Ember Days of Pentecost lack the familiar language of penitence. For these days, the people’s fast is a purely joyful, enthusiastic push to become more receptive of the graces of the Holy Spirit, as we see in a prayer of the Ember Saturday: “Grant, we pray, almighty God, that, improved [literally: polished smooth] by our salutary fasting, we abstain too from vice, and the more easily obtain your favor.”
Just as the Ember Days feed our good natural religious instincts, which the Church perfects, so too they remind us of our spiritual forebears, the Jewish people. Notably, many of the readings of September’s Ember Days remind us of a continuity between Jewish worship and Christian worship. On Ember Wednesday in September, Nehemiah 8:1-10 describes a celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the feast that commemorates the creation of the world, and which begins a 10-day period of repentance before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is then referenced on the Saturday with Leviticus 23:26-32, and the following reading is Leviticus 23:39-43, which prescribes the Feast of the Tabernacles (Sukkot), a seven-day festival that celebrates both the year’s harvest, and the Exodus. (All these celebrations fall on the seventh month, Tishrei, and September was originally the seventh month of the Roman calendar).
The longer Mass of each Ember Saturday also features, as its final Old Testament reading, Daniel 3:47-51; in which God keeps Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego safe in the middle of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. After this reading (which precedes the epistle), the Song of the Three Holy Children is sung as a hymn (except on Pentecost Saturday). During this hymn and the following prayer, the congregation, like the children in the furnace, remain standing. The story of the three children thus reminds us of God’s power over the elements, and his faithfulness to those who are faithful: a salutary and inspiring message for the gathered people of God as they come to the end of their Embertide fast. Importantly, the following prayer also links God’s power over the elements with his power to order men’s embodied natures: “O God, who made the flames of the fires mild for the three children: graciously grant that the flame of vice not consume us your servants.” Here again we see how the Ember Days teach us that man is a humble, embodied part of the natural world, dependent upon God and his gifts.
In my next post, I will discuss how and why the Ember Days had fallen into obscurity—and what might be done to resurrect them in some form today.
Image Source: AB/pxfuel
The September Ember Days traditionally began on the first Wednesday after the Feast of the Exaltation. However, in 1960 their dates were slightly tweaked: hence, in the current traditional calendar, they often now start on the second Wednesday after that feast. ↑
DiPippo, Gregory, “The Feast and Fast of Pentecost,” New Liturgical Movement, June 2, 2020. Accessed June 1 2021 <https://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2020/06/the-feast-and-fast-of-pentecost.html> ↑
“Ordinationes etiam prebyterorum et diaconorum, nisi certis temporibus et diebus, exercere non debent, id est, quarti mensis jejunio, septimi, et decimi, sed et etiam quadragesimalis initii, ac mediana Quadragesimae die, sabbati jejunio circa vesperam noverint celebrandas.’ Patrologia Latina tomus LIX, sectio ‘Gelasii Papae I Epistolae et Decreta,” Ep. IX, Cap. XI, 52. Interestingly, Pope Gelasius’ phrasing fits well with the hypothesis that the Ember Days of Lent were new in his time. Learned readers may be able to tell me whether I have correctly identified his mediana Quadragesimae dies. ↑
But such words are fitted to Lent, too: this prayer is almost the same as that of the Wednesday after the third Sunday in Lent. The difference in tone between the two is due to context. ↑
See Gregory DiPippo, “Liturgical Notes on the ember days of September,” New Liturgical Movement, September 16, 2020. Accessed June 1, 2021 <https://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2020/09/liturgical-notes-on-ember-days-of.html> ↑