After the Second Vatican Council, it wasn’t uncommon to hear people say, “We don’t do that anymore”—a common response based on the erroneous assumption that Vatican II threw out just about everything in favor of Latin-free liturgies and statue-free churches. That wasn’t the case, but it is definitely true that, in Catholicism, there are devotional practices that have fallen in and out of fashion over the centuries.
One such concept—Ember Days.
Pre-Christianity, pagan cultures had times set aside for religious expression connected to agriculture. Holy Mother Church, in order to help converts understand they were on the right track in acknowledging the passing seasons, but not in total possession of the complete truth, focused these special times on expressing gratitude to God.
Why “Ember” Days?
Not surprisingly, there is some discrepancy about the word “ember.” It may be from the old English ymbren, which refers to a circuit or revolution. It may be from the Latin name for these celebrations quattuor anni tempora (the “four seasons of the year”). It may be from someplace else.
The name isn’t really all that important. What’s amazing is just how well Christian devotion fit in with the pace of life in ancient times. It was not at all unreasonable that there should be four times a year when three days of fast and abstinence were practiced in special gratitude to Almighty God for the gift of His Son’s passion.
Ember days occur four times a year (about quarterly): on a Wednesday (the day Christ was betrayed), the following Friday (the day He was crucified) and the following Saturday (the day He was entombed).
So why don’t we do that anymore?
It’s not so much that we don’t “do” Ember Days anymore. We just don’t do them universally. The contemporary guidelines for ember Days were set down in 1966, by Pope Paul VI:
“On rogation and ember days 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 labour, and to make public thanksgiving. In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the faithful, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan of 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. On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occasions that is best suited to the intentions of the petitioners.”
Got it? Of course, you do. What’s not to understand?
Basically, Ember Days are alive and well, but are celebrated or not at the discretion of management. They haven’t been entirely removed from the Catholic calendar, but they also aren’t high on the liturgical radar. They’ve become a bit like a distant relative you have fond memories of but no particular reason to get together with these days.
According catholicism.about.com Ember Days are still celebrated in Europe, particularly in rural areas. Tied as they are to the seasons, perhaps they aren’t very significant to our largely suburban and season-proof way of life here in America.
Hey. What was that about “rogation” days?
We thought you might pick up on that. Tell you what. Let’s do another “Throw-back Thursday” next month and talk about rogation days.
Let us hear from you!
Is there a Catholic custom from way-back-when that you wish would make a comeback? Tell us about it in the com box below.
Latest posts by Jim Moore (see all)
- Saint Philip Neri’s Five Favorite Catholic Memes - May 27, 2016
- How to Shelter the Homeless During the Year of Mercy - May 23, 2016
- 5 ways to promote the faith like Madmen - May 20, 2016