Ember Days in the Catholic Liturgical Year
What Are Ember Days?
The term “Ember Days” is derived from the Latin term Quatuor Tempora, which literally means “four times.” There are four sets of Ember Days each calendar year; three days each – Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Ember Days fall at the start of a new season and they are ordered as days of fast and abstinence. The significance of the days of the week are that Wednesday was the day Christ was betrayed, Friday was the day He was crucified, and Saturday was the day He was entombed.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the purpose of Ember Days, “besides the general one intended by all prayer and fasting, was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.”
The Four Occurrences of Ember Days are as Follows:
Winter: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of St. Lucy.
Spring: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Ash Wednesday.
Summer: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost.
Fall: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of the Holy Cross.
What is an Ember Week?
The term Ember Week simply refers to the week in which the Ember Days occur.
History of Ember Days
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the celebration of Ember Days derived from a pagan Roman practice. Before converting to Christianity, the Romans had performed pagan religious ceremonies on these days in relation to their agriculture.
These occasions were changed when former pagans converted and Ember Days became a part of Christian tradition early, as noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
“The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. At first the Church in Rome had fasts in June, September, and December; the exact days were not fixed but were announced by the priests. The "Liber Pontificalis" ascribes to Pope Callistus (217-222) a law ordering the fast, but probably it is older. Leo the Great (440-461) considers it an Apostolic institution.”
As mentioned in the above quote, Ember Days were not set for a particular week in the early centuries. The timing for Catholic Ember Days was officially arranged and fixed by Pope Gregory VII, who was pope from 1073 to 1085.
Ember Days in the Liturgical Year Today
In 1966, Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution, Paenitemini, which addressed and altered feasting regulations, excluded Ember Days as days of fast and abstinence. In 1969, the liturgical reforms altered how they are observed in parishes:
“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.”
-General Norms for the Liturgical Year Calendar, Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI