Source: AB/Rafael Edwards on Flickr
Dec 30, 2021

Can the Ember Days of the Church Sprout Anew? (Part II)

The last post discussed the not-quite-gone-and-not-quite-forgotten Ember Days, including the origin and character of these liturgical days of thanksgiving as they were once celebrated. But this raises the question: Why do Catholic faithful for the most part no longer celebrate these days?

The answer lies, in part, in the restructuring of the liturgical calendar by the Consilium, the special commission tasked by Pope Paul VI with revising and restoring the Missal of 1969-1970—that is, the Novus Ordo. So another question must be addressed: Why did the Consilium remove the Ember Days from the universal liturgical calendar, the missal, and the office? Secondly, why as a result of this removal have the days been all but forgotten?

Back to the Books

To answer these questions, we must first understand that the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (UNLYC), and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), do still mandate in every diocese the celebration of the Ember Days and Rogation Days. (Similar to Ember Days, which are days of thanksgiving for the goods of nature, Rogation Days are days of petition for those goods.) As UNLYC states (emphasis added):

“45. On Rogation and ember days the Church is accustomed to entreat the Lord for the various needs of humanity, especially for the fruits of the earth and for human labor, and to give thanks to him publicly.

“46. In order that the Rogation Days and ember days may be adapted to the different regions and different needs of the faithful, the Conferences of Bishops should arrange the time and manner in which they are held.

“Consequently, concerning their duration, whether they are to last one or more days, or be repeated in the course of the year, norms are to be established by the competent authority, taking into consideration local needs.

“47. The Mass for each day of these celebrations should be chosen from among the Masses for Various Needs, and should be one which is more particularly appropriate to the purpose of the supplications.”

This passage implies that bishops ought to fix at least one Ember Day for each of Advent, Lent, Pentecost, and September. GIRM 394 confirms this impression:

“In the drawing up of the Calendar of a nation, the Rogation Days and ember days should be indicated (cf. no. 373), as well as the forms and texts for their celebration, and other special measures should also be kept in mind.”

Why, then, have the Ember Days disappeared? Well, note that the UNLYC above mentions the “manner” and “purpose” of the supplications, implying that these might vary in the liturgical revisions of 1969-70. Drawing on this, various bishops’ conferences, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, say that their current national and diocesan days of special prayer—e.g., in the US, “Days of Prayer and Special Observances”—constitute (renamed) Ember Days, and so fulfill the above-quoted requirements of liturgical law.[1]

Fielded Questions

This may seem like an odd interpretation of the liturgical texts quoted, which have the force of law; but it will make more sense if we now consider the Consilium’s own uncertain intentions for the Ember Days. Consider the following from the Consilium’s journal, Notitiae, published in 1969 in answer to the question, “What should be done for the Ember and Rogation days?” The response notes:

“One should look to the provisions made by episcopal conferences or individual bishops, both as regards the timing and manner. On the days on which the rogations and the ember days were previously observed, the Mass and Office are to be of the feria or the saint(s)’s day. However, the bishop or episcopal conference may order local celebrations on those days; these may take different forms e.g., in and out of town, and may draw on various themes—the fruits of the earth, peace, the unity of the Church, the propagation of the faith, etc. For such celebrations a suitable votive Mass should be said.”[2]

This reply is indicative of the state of the Consilium’s thinking. On the one hand, the reply suggests some traditional themes for use on the Ember Days (unity and the propagation of the faith being implicit in the communal fasting of Embertide). On the other hand, it offers bishops a wide discretion to choose their own themes. Here we see a tension between the aim of retaining reformed, more flexible Ember Days and the aim of replacing them outright. Indeed, the secretary of the Consilium, then-Father Annibale Bugnini, in his posthumous The Reform of the Liturgy, sometimes conceives of the Consilium’s reform as a “replacement” of the Ember Days, and sometimes as a mere changing of them—once, indeed, he even talks in both terms on the same page.[3]

Four years after the 1969 responsum, Notitiae complained that many bishops’ conferences had failed to establish any Ember Days, and it cited the Diocese of Emilia-Flaminia’s provision for Ember Days as exemplary: this consisted of a quinquepartite list of twenty-five suggested votive Masses, of which only one was agricultural in theme.[4]

Notitiae’s phrase “in and out of town” is especially interesting. From the perspective of the late 1960s, the traditional Embertide focus on agricultural matters perhaps seemed more appropriate for a medieval, agrarian society than for the modern West, in which fewer and fewer people were attuned to the crop-growing cycle; hence the Consilium, it seems, wished to give bishops the flexibility to focus on what it thought would be more relevant themes. Furthermore, the Roman rite was already becoming a global rite, and celebrations tied to the agricultural cycle of ancient Rome were irrelevant to the agricultural years of many Roman-rite Catholics. Lastly, the Ember Days, encrusted with various layers of historical addition, were complicated and hence vulnerable to the same arguments about simplification that prevailed over Septuagesimatide and other aspects of preconciliar missals, including the Missal of 1962.

Embers Still Glow…

In the intervening half century, has the Consilium’s thinking proved justified? Given the Consilium’s conceptual vacillation on the Ember Days, and the resultant unclarity about whether most Catholics are still actually celebrating (renamed) Ember Days or not, what we really need to ask here is whether bishops conferences’ modern cycles of prayer have lost something valuable by omitting traditional Ember Days grounded in the natural cycle. Here I will take the US cycle of prayer as typical.

The US national cycle of prayer has 32 entries,[5] of which only one—the World Day of Prayer of the Care of Creation—focuses on the natural world. Whereas once the liturgy was grounded in the natural cycle, the paschal cycle, and the sanctoral cycle, it is now grounded in the latter two, plus a cycle of 32 causes, ranging from the World Day of Communications to World Youth Day.

Yet this new set of cycles is indeed insufficient, and for two reasons.

First: whereas the old set of three cycles was inherently religious and latreutic (that is, ordered to the worship of the Trinity), the modern cycle of causes is not. For this reason, it has failed to seep into Catholics’ spirituality. After all, in former days, many of the faithful knew about the Ember Days and their timings, as indicated by popular memory aids such as “Lenty, Penty, Crucy, Lucy,” which reminded one of their dates.[6] But how many people even attempt to remember the dates of, say, Catechetical Sunday or National Migration week? The problem is not that these celebrations are objectionable in themselves, but that they do not blend into the liturgical, latreutic year nearly as readily as the old Ember Days, which are in a sense as old as natural religion. Unlike the old Ember Days, their modern replacements are social causes, not natural channels of our specifically liturgical worship. Hence, whatever their value, they make an inadequate substitute for traditionally themed Ember Days.

Secondly, the new set of cycles is defective because, in gutting the Ember Days of their themes, the Consilium assumed that the natural cycle was of little spiritual relevance to late-modern Western city-dwellers. But this assumption, I would suggest, has proved false. Today, all Western Catholics are exposed, on the one hand, to the prevailing, highly dualist world-view, according to which our bodies are mere tools with which to mine pleasure; and, on the other hand, to a “spiritual-but-not-religious” worship of Mother Nature. These twin errors reflect a profound ignorance of God as the author of creation—of which man is an integral yet still subordinate part.

Sparks of Tradition

For this reason, members of the Church in the West would benefit from a restoration of traditionally themed Ember Days, which were once some of the Church’s most powerful weapons against these errors. The days reminded us that we are humble parts of the natural world, dependent upon the land. Humans must work with, not against, both the natural world outside ourselves, and own our bodily natures, while also striving against the disorder that is in our nature because of the Fall. The Ember Days helped us to love the natural world; yet to love it not like neo-pagans, for its own sake, but because it is a wondrous expression of God’s creative power. These days of thanksgiving celebrated the harvesting of the materials of the sacraments (wheat, grapes, olive oil, etc.), and thus connected nature and supernature in a profound and instructive way. They also met our right and natural religious instinct for marking and sanctifying the seasons.

Restored to the revised form of the liturgy, the Ember Days could do all this again, perhaps even better than before. But by neglecting the Ember Days, the Church has been missing an opportunity for evangelism by means of naturally attractive liturgy. And besides, not all Catholics are city-dwellers! The Farmers’ Almanac[7] still notes the Ember Days, but the Church does not—at least in any meaningful way. Even though some rural parishes still keep traditional Ember Days, the rarity of them is a sad defect in the Church’s provision for countrymen.

The Ember Days also helped make penitence and fasting an ongoing, integrated part of Catholics’ spiritual lives. As St. Leo the Great said 15 centuries ago, “The reason why four annual periods of continence were instituted was that we might recognize, over the course of each year, that we were in constant need of purification.”[8] Today, many Catholics seem to see penitence and fasting as things that they can safely neglect after Lent. A restoration of the Ember Days—including their brief, recurrent periods of fasting—would help correct this unsafe assumption.

Lastly, the Ember Days reminded the faithful of the continuity between natural religion, the Jewish people’s worship, and the Church’s own sacrificial worship at the altar. A sense of this continuity is deeply valuable, for it reminds us that we are living in the last age, for which all men’s previous thought and striving, all his previous encounters with God, prepared the way. It thus helps us to reject the “hermeneutic of rupture” and look to that “hermeneutic of continuity” which will be so key for the Church as she continues to live and grow after the Second Vatican Council, unfossilized, yet in communion with the Church of the past. We should be trying to emphasize these continuities in our all liturgies.

Light It Up

For all these reasons, I argue that every church community which celebrates the Roman Rite should observe traditionally themed Ember Days. These need not fall on the traditional Roman dates; instead, each bishop should fit them to the seasonal cycles of his region. Nor need each individual Ember Day touch on every traditional Embertide theme—the old days really were very thematically intricate. Instead, each of a set of three days could cover one or two traditional themes. Bishops whose regions have no wheat or grape or olive harvests could of course make their Ember Days celebrations of different harvests or other times of natural, seasonal thanksgiving.[9]

But which votive Masses would be suitable for such celebrations? In September, the Mass “After the Harvest” would be a natural choice, as would be the Mass “At Seedtime” in Lent. One might also use the Masses “For Productive Land” and “For the Blessing of Human Labor.” On perhaps one or two of the three days of each Embertide, bishops could also introduce the themes of penitence, peace, and the sacrament of Holy Orders by prescribing any two of the Masses “For the Remission of Sins,” “For Reconciliation,” “For Peace and Justice,” “For Priests,” “For Ministers of the Church,” and “For Vocations to Holy Orders or Religious Life.” Indeed, these are all Masses that are well worth celebrating on some prominent occasion each year.

The Ember Days constitute a highly valuable, extremely ancient, and likely apostolic tradition. They fulfilled a healthy natural religious instinct and perfected it in Christ, drawing a new sacramental significance from the agricultural year. They reminded us of our dependence upon God and upon the goods of the earth. They linked us to our Jewish forebears. They taught us that we ourselves are embodied, and part of nature. They served as quarterly, cleansing times of penitence. They enjoined humility.

The Ember Days are not strictly part of apostolic tradition, and they have not strictly been suppressed; nevertheless, something is amiss when the ethos of such venerable days can be all but forgotten. We should restore them to the Church’s liturgical life.

In this entry, we saw how modern cycles of prayer have replaced the traditional Ember Days. In the next series, we shall see how the Rogation Days complemented the Ember Days. We will see how their loss has left a gap in our prayer life: a gap that we shall observe in our spiritual response to COVID-19. Thankfully, though, the Rogation Days, like the Ember Days, would be easy to restore, and we shall also see how bishops might do just that.


Image Credit: AB/Rafael Edwards on Flickr


Notes: 

  1. “Since the Second Vatican Council, the celebration of ember and rogation days continue to exist as ways for the Church ‘to entreat the Lord for the various needs of humanity’ (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 45), though the scheduling of such days was delegated to Conferences of Bishops. In the United States, that authority rests with each Diocesan Bishop (see General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) 373), as they are better able to discern what special intentions need to be prayed for in the respective dioceses and regions. Even as each diocese maintains its list of such special observances, the terminology of ember days and rogation days has shifted to that of ‘Days of Prayer,’” “Days of Prayer and Special Observances,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Accessed June 1, 2021 <https://www.usccb.org/committees/divine-worship/special-observances>
  2. Standum est ad ordinationes Conferentiarum Episcopalium aut singulorum Episcoporum sive quoad tempus sive quoad modum. Diebus quibus antea habebantur rogationes vel quattuor tempora Missa et Officium fiunt de feria aut de sanctis. Episcopus autem vel Conferentia Episcopalis praecipere valent illis diebus peculiares celebrationes quae diversae esse possunt, v. gr. ruri vel in civitatibus, et quae varia themata attingere possunt, fructus terrae, pacem, unitatem Ecclesia, propagationem fidei, etc. Hoc in case dicitir Missa votive apta.” Notitiae 48 (1969) vol.5 nn.9-10,405. Accessed July 9, 2021 <http://www.cultodivino.va/content/cultodivino/it/rivista-notitiae/indici-annate/1969/48.html>. Source found at the very useful index of Responsa ad dubia at http://notitiae.ipsissima-verba.org/, a web-page of scholar and priest Father Dylan Schrader. (But N.B., the wrong volume of Notitiae is cited for it on that site).

  3. The Reform of the Liturgy, 321, second paragraph and footnote 39.

  4. Notitiae 85 (1973) vol. 9 nn.7-8, 273. Accessed July 9, 2021 <http://www.cultodivino.va/content/cultodivino/it/rivista-notitiae/indici-annate/1973/85.html>

  5. See USCCB, “Days of Prayer and Special Observances,” https://www.usccb.org/committees/divine-worship/special-observances, accessed August 25, 2021.

  6. The September and Advent Ember Days came after the Exaltation of the Cross (“Crucy”) and St Lucy’s Day (“Lucy”) respectively.

  7. “ember days: Dates and Meaning,” Farmers’ Almanac. Accessed June 1, 2021 <https://www.farmersalmanac.com/ember-days>.

  8. ideo ipsa continentiae observantia quattuor est assignata temporibus, ut in idipsum totius anni redeunte decursu, cognosceremus nos indesinenter purificationibus indigere.” Quoted in Tribe, Shawn, “ember days: Explanation and Two Proposals [UPDATED],” New Liturgical Movement, September 23, 2008. Accessed June 1, 2021 <https://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2008/09/ember-days-explanation-and-two.html>. Mr Tribe was himself quoting The Restoration and Organic Development of the Roman Rite by Laszlo Dobszay.

  9. Note that all three sacramental materials are grown in the U.S.