What are Ember Days?
Ember days are an ancient devotion in the Church going back to the early days of the Church in the Roman Empire. The word “ember” is actually a corruption of the Latin tempora, which refers to their frequency as these occur four times a year or Quatuor Tempora. The practice is ancient in origin but the specific dates were instituted by Pope Gregory VII nearly a thousand years ago. The purpose of the observance is to offer thanksgiving for the gifts of nature, to inculcate temperance in their use and encourage generosity with the poor through prayer, fasting and abstinence. The ember days are celebrated four times a year for one week (called Embertide) following the feast of St. Lucia (December 13th), Ash Wednesday, Whit Sunday (Pentecost), and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14th). On the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the week the devotion is practiced by observing fasting (one meal per day, with two small snacks which together do not constitute a meal) and partial abstinence which means meat may be consumed at the meal but not at other times of the day. Since the reform of the calendar in 1969, the practice is no longer obligatory but is a popular piety.
The timing of the ember days is intended to follow the change of the seasons and are attached to significant feasts near those times. In the early days of the Church, the faithful were still heavily influenced by the pagan practices of the Romans whose feasts had strong agricultural ties. The Romans celebrated a series of three feasts with tributes to pagan gods to obtain specific favors at the time of their practice such as planting time, for the period of growth, and at harvest time. As the Church Christianized people, She also Christianized practices such as these. The early practices of the ember days were not specifically tied to dates on the calendar but were pronounced by the priest and generally followed the Roman feasts in September, June and December. Sometime before the fifth century a fourth week was added.
The popular Japanese dish of tempura actually developed from the observance of ember days by the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries to Japan in the 16th century. Tempura is a dish of delicately battered pieces of fish, shrimp and vegetables that are quickly deep fried and served immediately. The name tempura is a corruption of the word tempora. The missionaries were seeking foods that were sensitive to the Japanese sensibility and palate as well as allowed them to practice abstinence during the observance of ember days as this food evolved from their practice of the Faith.
There are no Masses in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite for the celebration of Ember Days. In the Extraordinary Form the Masses for Embertide contain as many as five lessons from the Old Testament as well as an Epistle and a Gospel reading, making the Masses as long as they are ancient. The readings serve to focus our attention on the significance of the feasts and the importance in recognizing the intricately structured order of nature and time. Only during Embertide are nature and the gifts of nature singled out as special gifts from the Creator to mankind. In a time and place where the creation is worshipped rather than Creator, it is seems profoundly necessary to preserve their proper place by observing the Ember Days. Further, the ember days are not celebrated in Eastern Orthodoxy making the practice deeply Roman and therefore significant for Catholics. It is the practice of our people in times and places both very far away and intimately close. While their observance is no longer compulsory, it can be a beautiful and deep devotion to bring one closer to both creation and Creator.
More information can be found at New Advent.