Q. What are “ember days”?
A. Ember days are called in Latin Quattuor Anni Tempora, “four annual seasons.” They are the three days at the beginning of each of the four seasons formerly prescribed by the Church as days of fasting, abstinence, and prayer. Christians were also encouraged to receive the sacrament of Penance on those days. The four quarterly periods in which the ember days fall are called the “Embertides.” (The etymology of the English name “Ember” has been debated.)
The origins of Ember Days are somewhat obscure. Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461) considered them an apostolic tradition, but they also seem to have corresponded to ancient pagan ceremonies (Roman or perhaps Celtic) that called on agricultural gods for help in times of harvest and seeding. Perhaps, given her well-known strategy of sanctifying popular practices by reinterpreting and re-orienting them according to the Christian faith, that’s why the ancient Church at Rome established these fasts in June, September, and December. In the beginning the exact days weren’t fixed, but were announced by the priests.
By the third century, Ember Days were fixed at Rome by Church law; by the fifth century, the celebration of a fourth season was included. Ember Days also became a time for the ordination of priests and deacons, which had formerly been reserved to Easter.
After the fifth century, the practice of Ember Days spread from Rome throughout Western Europe, though it never took hold in the Christian East. Pope St. Gregory VII (c. 1021–1085) prescribed them for the entire Church on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the First Sunday in Lent, Pentecost Sunday, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), and St. Lucy’s Day (December 13). According to this calendar, the first Ember Days of 2018 take place this week (Wednesday through Friday, February 21 through 23).
The 1969 General Norms for the Liturgical Year describe Ember Days as times when “the practice of the Church is to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labor, and to give Him public thanks” (n. 45). The local conference of bishops is to determine “the time and plan of their celebration” (n. 46). The bishops’ conference may even extend the days celebrated or repeat them.
In the United States it seems that we rarely hear about Ember Days; most bishops here have chosen not to observe them officially. But in many other countries they are observed, and even in our country, private observance of the days is not discouraged. Recalling this ancient custom can help us focus ourselves on God through penance and thanksgiving.