Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs – Ember Days

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ORIGIN AND HISTORY

Early Centuries

The Romans, originally an agricultural people, had many nature gods and a goodly number of pagan religious nature festivals. Outstanding among them was the threefold seasonal observance of prayer and sacrifices to obtain the favor of the gods upon sowing and harvest. The first of these seasonal celebrations occurred at various dates between the middle of November and the winter solstice. It was a time of prayer for successful sowing (Feriae Sementivae: Feast of Sowing). The second festival was held in June or July for the grain harvest (Feriae Messis: Harvest Feast). The third one came before the autumnal equinox (September) and was motivated by the wine harvest (Vinalia: Feast of Wine).

The early Christians in the Roman Empire could not, of course, partake in such pagan celebrations in any way. On the other hand, the thought of prayer to God for His blessing upon sowing and harvest appealed as much, and even more so, to the Christians as it did to the pagans. Moreover, the Scriptures of the Old Testament mention “the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth” (Zechariah 8:19). The Dead Sea scrolls, too, contain a clear reference to special prayer times at the beginning of the annual seasons.

It is not surprising, then, that the Christians in Rome introduced such prayer seasons of their own at the time the empire was still pagan (third century). These prayer periods, although coinciding roughly with the pagan dates of celebration (because of their natural background), did not imitate the heathen observance. Instead of the pagan feasting, the Christians fasted. They offered the Eucharistic Sacrifice after having fasted the whole of Saturday and having performed a long vigil service of prayers and readings. The first regulations concerning this festival of the “Three Seasons” are ascribed to Pope Callistus (222).

Very early, probably during the fourth century, the Church added a fourth prayer period (in March). This change seems to have been motivated by the fact that the year contains four natural seasons, and also by the mention of four fasting periods in the Book of the prophet Zechariah. At about the same time, each period was extended over the three traditional Station days (Wednesday, Friday, Saturday). While the Station fast at other times was expected but not strictly prescribed, this seasonal observance imposed fasting by obligation. The vigil service from Saturday to Sunday was retained as a full vigil, lasting the greater part of the night.

Pope Leo the Great (461) mentions these prayer periods, or Ember Days, as an ancient traditional celebration of the Roman Church. He even claims that they are of apostolic origin (which may well be correct as far as the Jewish custom of seasonal prayer times is concerned). He preached a number of sermons on the occasion, stressing both the duty of imploring God’s blessing and of thanking Him for the harvest by the tribute of a joyful fast before consuming the gifts of His bounty. In subsequent centuries, however, the Ember celebration lost a great deal of its joyous and festive character, and the motive of penance was stressed more and more.

Another historical event helped to overshadow the original purpose and mood of Embertides. In 494 Pope Gelasius I prescribed that the sacrament of Holy Orders (deaconate, priesthood) be conferred on Ember Saturdays. Thus the prayer and fasting of Ember week acquired added importance, for apostolic tradition demanded that ordinations be preceded by fast and prayer (Acts 13:3). Not only the candidates fasted and prayed for a few days in preparation for Holy Orders, but the whole clergy and people joined them to obtain God’s grace and blessing upon their calling. It seemed natural, then, to put the ordinations at the end of those weeks that already were established times of prayer and fasting.

Thus the regulation of Pope Gelasius turned the Embertides into a general performance of spiritual exercises for all, similar in thought and purpose to our modern retreats and missions. The Holy Orders were then conferred before the Mass of Saturday, after the lessons which closed with the hymn “Benedictus” of the Old Testament (see Daniel 3:52).

The Embertides have remained official times of ordination ever since. Candidates are still obliged to perform spiritual exercises in preparation; however, these are now made privately, and not in union with the whole congregation, as was the case in ancient days. On the other hand, the Ember weeks have been stressed in recent centuries as a time of special prayer on the part of the faithful for vocations to priesthood and for the sanctification of priests.

Medieval Times

At the beginning of the sixth century the Ember Day celebration was well established at Rome in all its essential features. The only point that remained undetermined for a long time was the date of the Ember weeks in Advent and Lent. The ancient regulations only prescribed the “third week in December” and the “first week in March” without saying what should be done when the month started on a Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday. This question was finally settled by Pope Gregory VII (1085), who decided on the following arrangement (which is still kept today) : Embertides are to be celebrated in the weeks after the third Sunday of Advent, after the first Sunday of Lent, during Pentecost week, and in the week following the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14).

The Embertides spread slowly at first, and not without some popular resistance outside of Rome, for they were a typically local celebration of the city of Rome. The Diocese of Milan, for instance, did not introduce them for a thousand years, until the thirteenth century. They went to Spain through the acceptance of the Roman Missal in the eleventh century. Long before that, however, the Anglo-Saxons had adopted them in the eighth century by taking over the Roman rites as a whole at their eonversion. In the Frankish kingdoms (France and Germany) they seem to have been introduced by Saint Boniface (754), but did not become established until Charlemagne prescribed them for the whole Frankish realm in 769. Their observance, though, had to be repeatedly enjoined by synods in France and Germany during the ninth century, until they finally became a universal and popular feature of ecclesiastical celebration. The Eastern Churches do not observe Embertides, but have other periods of penance and fast besides Lent.

Names

In the earliest liturgical books the Ember Days are simply called “the fast of the first, fourth, seventh and tenth month” (that is, March, June, September, December) – an interesting example of how the ancient practice of starting the year on March first, which had been officially abrogated by Julius Caesar, was still in vogue among the population of Rome centuries later. During the sixth century the term Quatuor Tempora (Four Times or Seasons) was introduced, and has remained ever since as the official ecclesiastical name for the Embertides.

From the Latin word most European nations coined their popular terms: Quatretemps in French, Quatro Tempora in Italian, Las Temporas in Spanish, Quatember in German, Kvatrni posti among the southern Slavs, Kdntor bdjtdk in Hungarian. The northern Slavs of the Latin Rite call the Embertides Suche dni (“Dry days”) from the ancient custom of eating uncooked food during fasts. The English term Ember seems to derive from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren (season, period).

LITURGY

Common Features

In early medieval days it was customary in Rome to hold a penitential procession which proceeded from the place of gathering (collecta) to the Station church for the services on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays of Ember weeks. The night from Saturday to Sunday was a major vigil. As at the Easter vigil, passages from the Bible were read in twelve long lessons, the last one always being the story of the three young men in the furnace (Daniel 3). Today there are only six lessons – considerably shortened – but closing, as of old, with the miracle of the furnace and the hymn of the three men (Daniel 3:47-56). The call Flectamus Genua (Let us bend our knees) has also been retained from the rite of major vigils in ancient times.

The Mass following the prayer service of the vigil stood for the Sunday Mass. Thus many old liturgical books carry the remark Dominica vacat (“the Sunday is vacant”), that is, it has no Mass text of its own. Only after the sixth century, when the vigil service and its Mass were anticipated on Saturday evening ( and later on Saturday morning), did the Sundays receive texts of their own in the Missal.

Besides some traces (in the lessons) of the original purpose, the Mass formulas of Ember Days mostly express the thoughts of the liturgical seasons in which they fall: expectation of the Lord in Advent; penance and prayer in Lent; the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Masses of the Embertide in September seem to have preserved features of the original celebration, since the lessons and prayers reflect the joy of a harvest festival.

It is an interesting fact that most of the Gospel passages on Ember Days (with the exception of those in Advent) relate or mention the expulsion of demons. This has been interpreted as an indication of how the Church consciously condemned and supplanted the pagan celebration of the seasonal feriae, which was not a service of the true God but a slavery of false gods whom the early Christians considered and called “demons.”

Embertide of Pentecost

This Embertide has assumed a special character which distinguishes it from all the others. Coinciding with the octave of Pentecost, it displays an interesting combination of penitential motives (in some of its Mass prayers) with the celebration of the great feast (Gloria, Credo, Alleluia, Sequence, Pentecostal orations, red vestments, omission of Flectamus Genua). Because of this joyful note it used to be called Ieiunium Exultationis (the Fast of Exultation) in the Middle Ages. Abbot Rupert of Deutz (1130) wrote about it as follows:

It is not a fast to make us sad or to darken our hearts, but it rather brightens the solemnity of the Holy Spirit’s arrival; for the sweetness of the Spirit of God makes the faithful loathe the pleasures of earthly food.

Saint Isidore of Spain (636), Doctor of the Church, relates that for a time in the earliest centuries this fast was held right after the Feast of the Ascension, in imitation of the Apostles’ prayerful retreat (Acts 1, 14). It was soon transferred to Pentecost week, however, because the practice of the Church did not allow for fasting or penitential exercises between Easter and Pentecost.

FOLKLORE

Religious Customs

Up to the late Middle Ages the Ember Days were generally kept as holydays of obligation, with attendance at Mass and rest from work, and as weeks of penance and fervent prayer. They were favored dates for the reception of Holy Communion, a custom still alive in many Catholic sections of Europe.

The practice of spiritual and temporal works of charity and mercy, which had always been stressed by the Church in connection with Embertide fasting, produced the custom of devoting the Ember Days to special prayer for the suffering souls in purgatory, and of having Masses said for them during the Embertides. This tradition, too, is still frequently found in European countries. Alms and food were given to the poor on Ember Days, and warm baths provided for them (a popular work of Christian charity in bygone centuries).

Since people in centuries past were more keenly aware of the connection between Embertides and prayer for God’s blessing upon the functions and fruits of nature, they also included in their petitions, and in a special way, the successful and happy birth of their children. Thus the Ember Days became particular occasions of prayer by and for pregnant mothers. Children born during Embertides were considered as unusually blessed by God. Popular superstition ascribed to them “good luck” for their whole life, excellent health, and many favors of body and soul.

Finally, there is the ancient legend that many poor souls are allowed to leave purgatory for a few moments every Embertide, to appear in visible shape to those relatives and friends who fervently pray for the departed ones, in order to thank them and to beg for continued prayerful help for themselves and for those holy souls who have nobody on earth to remember them. The laudable custom observed by many faithful in modern times of praying and having Masses offered for the “forgotten” souls in purgatory seems to be a happy relic of this medieval popular legend.

Quarter Terms

From ancient Germanic usage the Ember weeks took over the character of “quarter terms,” that is, the four seasonal periods of the year during which burdensome civic obligations had to be carried out, like the paying of debts, tithes, and taxes. From this practice the Ember weeks were called by the Persian-Latin term Angariae (Requisitions). The German word Frohnfasten is often explained as meaning the same as Angariae – the payment of what is owed to temporal lords. Actually, however, it means the “Fast of the Lord God,” that is, a solemn, general, and holy fast in the service of God.

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weiser, SJ. “Ember Days”. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1952. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 January 2016. Web. 6 December 2016. <>