I’ve been Catholic for forty-one years, actually making an effort for seventeen, a liturgical living devotee for eleven, and blogging about it for five.
And . . . I just found out about Ember Days.
As I was researching feast days for the Catholic All Year Compendium (my upcoming book, not sure yet of the release date, it’s still in the editing process) and the 2018 wall calendar, I stumbled across a couple references to Ember Days and finally decided to look into them. I marked them on the calendar, and a few folks have asked me about them already, so I figured I’d give you a quick rundown of what I learned, and how I hope to incorporate them into our family life in the coming year.
- The Ember Days are four sets of three days of penance, one set at the beginning of each season.
- They occur on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the same week.
- Wednesday is memory of Judas’ betrayal.
- Friday is in memory of the crucifixion.
- Saturday is in memory of the tomb.
- The individual feast days aren’t involved with the penance, they’re just reminders of when the Ember Days fall (although two of the feast days are penitential in themselves).
- The winter Ember Days follow St. Lucy’s Day (December 13th) and are offered in thanksgiving for the olive harvest, which gives us holy oils.
- The spring Ember Days follow Ash Wednesday (movable, forty-six days before Easter) and are offered in thanksgiving for the flowers, which feed the bees, who make the wax, that gives us the altar candles.
- The summer Ember Days follow Pentecost (movable, the eighth Sunday after Easter) and are offered in thanksgiving for the wheat harvest, which gives us the Eucharist.
- The fall Ember Days follow the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14th) and are offered in thanksgiving for the grape harvest, which gives us the Precious Blood.
- If the feast day falls on a Wednesday, the Ember Days begin on the following Wednesday.
- The penance is traditionally fasting on Wednesday and Saturday, and fasting and abstinence from meat on Friday.
- Current fasting norms in the U.S. permit one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.
- Abstinence is binding from age fourteen. Fasting is binding from age eighteen to fifty-nine (except for those exempt for reasons of age or health).*
- Until 1966, the Ember Days were a required observation for all Catholics (except for those exempt for reasons of age or health).
- Since 1966, observation is left up to the discretion of the local bishops.**
- In the U.S., observation of the Ember Days is recommended, but not mandatory.***
If you have experience observing Ember Days in your home, especially with a family, I’d love to hear about what you do.
Updated to add . . .
|The Blessing of the Wheat in Artois, 1857 – Jules Breton|
Another category of now-little known days of penance are the rogation days. The major rogation falls on the feast of St. Mark, April 25th (but is unrelated to the Evangelist), and the minor rogation days fall on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the Ascension. It’s an unlikely time for extra days of penance, as it’s during Eastertide, but they were offered to God during the spring planting season in the hopes that the wheat crop would be protected from natural disasters. Though often referred to as fasting days, during the Easter season, they would have been observed as days of abstinence from meat, but not days of fasting. It is traditional, on the major rogation day to recite the Litany of All Saints, and to walk in procession around the boundaries of the parish, blessing the crops.
For those of us who live where parishes are big and crops are few, we could offer our prayers and abstinence from meat for farmers and for the victims of natural disasters.
Finally, there are the Vigils.
There are historical fasts associated with the vigils of a few important feast days. In the U.S. they are the vigils of Christmas, Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception (8 December), and All Saints (31 October). Fasting and abstinence are officially recommended on these days, as well as on Holy Saturday.
It can seem, well, crazy for those of us who grew up without any tradition of observing the vigils of these feast days. Especially for those of us in America who grew up celebrating Halloween and Christmas Eve as basically feast days unto themselves. But we have begun observing abstinence in our house on these vigil days, and it really has brought a sense of mindful preparation to those days. Fortunately Halloween candy is meat-free!
If you’d like to keep track of ALL the feasts of the Catholic liturgical year, I’ve created a wall calendar to help you do it!
Get a physical copy here and the PDF version here!
It features the all the feasts and fasts of the Universal Calendar and then some, illustrated with images featuring the traditional Catholic monthly devotions. It’s an easy visual way to bring liturgical living into your home. You can keep track of the feasts and fasts and seasons of the Catholic year, and be reminded to focus your prayer on a different aspect of our faith each month.
As the Church year begins with December, so does this calendar. You get December 2022 through December 2023, thirteen months. Available for purchase here. Thanks!
* Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
** 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, Paenitemini, 1966
*** Vigils and Ember Days, as most now know, no longer oblige to fast and abstinence. However, the liturgical renewal and the deeper appreciation of the joy of the holy days of the Christian year will, we hope, result in a renewed appreciation as to why our forefathers spoke of “a fast before a feast.” We impose no fast before any feast-day, but we suggest that the devout will find greater Christian joy in the feasts of the liturgical calendar if they freely bind themselves, for their own motives and in their own spirit of piety, to prepare for each Church festival by a day of particular self-denial, penitential prayer and fasting.
–Pastoral Statement On Penance And Abstinence: A Statement Issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops November 18, 1966
the mnemonic to help remember them that I learned is Lenti, Penti, Cruci, Luci
I never learned one to remember Candles, Wheat, Grapes, Oil –
That's an excellent mnemonic. Thanks!
Great post, Kendra! I'm convinced that the traditional calendar, with its more regular feasts and octaves (Pentecost and All Saints) AND with its far more frequent days of obligatory fasting and abstinence had it right. I also think regular penance and mortification is an antidote to the modern world's hedonism. If we can feast whenever we want, it loses its importance, and our daily life becomes mundane. Periodically moving move from fast to feast is both more human and results in necessary spiritual growth as we prune away our attachments to the world and its pleasures and seek joy in heavenly things.
It's encouraging to see many Catholics rediscovering these wise traditions and embracing them.
I addressed this subject myself here: https://onepeterfive.com/a-return-to-penance-and-abstinence/
Yes, this whole break with the liturgical year that happened post vatican II seems to be an experiment that didn't bear much good fruit. I see so many families hungering for some rhythm and routine and tradition in their year and their life of faith. I also think a lot of Catholics are realizing that we're tougher than they think we are. We can handle more than two days of fasting a year! And we probably need them more than ever. Better now than in purgatory!
I've just been learning about these days too and I was tickled to see them on your calendar! I'm very tired of reading about old traditions that are supposed to be "encouraged" by the USCCB…and yet I, a cradle Catholic who went to Catholic schools and all has never even heard of them. Hmm. Who's encouraging them?? Anywho, I have been thinking of ways to observe them at home too. Some ideas I've had…
—We homeschool. So I've thought of making the four ember weeks as catch up weeks (I like those periodically anyway) and using the extra time to do seasonal chores, indoors and out.
—-take a family hike and enjoy the seasonal changes.
—and after fasting/abstaining on those ember days, having a fun seasonal meal of some kind that Sunday? Maybe incorporating the wheat/oil/grapes/bees thing?
Thanks for this!! I've heard about the Ember Days and this is so helpful to understanding the hows and whys of it all! It is so strange and disheartening that we seem to have been stripped of these tools for entering into our faith and living with the rhythm of the Church, isn't it?
A really quick correction: St. Lucy's feast day is Dec 13! That's one I do keep track of since she's my patroness 🙂
Yes it is! Typo! Thanks.
Thanks for this post! Embers Days have been on my list of "I really need to learn more about this….." for awhile now. So now I do! The days are listed in my Catholic planner (from Michelle Quigley) and I now will observe them this December. Living the liturgical year makes the whole "Catholic thing" so much more understandable, relevant and personal. It's made a big difference in my life the last few years and I feel like I still only have a few toes in it. Thanks for posts that always educate, inspire and challenge while being true to the Faith.
I'm an old-timer, but evidently was too young at the time when Vatican II was doing away with our beautiful traditions to remember Ember Days. I started attending an FSSP parish this year, so I'm now learning about Ember Days AND Rogation Days, also removed from the liturgical calendar after Vatican II. https://www.fisheaters.com/customseastertide3.html
I'm a member of the Orthodox Church and attend a Western Rite parish. We observe these Ember Days throughout the year. We especially pray for our priests and all in holy orders on these days. Here is a prayer for these days from our prayer book: Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts, Who of Thy divine Providence hast appointed divers Orders in Thy Church; Give Thy grace, we humbly beseech Thee, to all those who are to be called to any office and administration in the same; and so replenish them with the truth of Thy doctrine, and endue them with innocency of life, that they may faithfully serve before Thee, to the glory of Thy great Name, and the benefit of Thy holy Church. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I think it's lovely to be thankful for the wax, the wheat, grapes and olives, because candles, bread, wine and oil are what physically keeps churches running. Without them, we wouldn't be able to worship our God!
I had never heard of Ember days before, but I had heard about farmers donating olive oil to churches on saint Lucy's day and flour on Pentecost). Thank you for telling us about this! I think this info can be extra special for Catholic women named Ember, because they now know they have a name day! (Maybe the Thursday of one of those weeks, because there's no fasting?)
Next on my liturgical brain…working septuagesima into our home!
Thank you for this post! I had always wondered what Ember days were about. Perfect timing to try to incorporate them (as best I can with two littles and a third on the way) next year!!
I have heard of Ember Days in a non-religious context: If you prune shrubs on those days, unwanted growth will supposedly not return. There are still old-timers in these parts who remember this tradition regarding shrubbery, even though they are not Catholic! http://www.josephinesjournal.com/ember_days.htm
I love old traditions like this! There's another one about having your grape vines pruned before the feast of St. Vincent of Saragossa.
Awesome post! I'm loving learning about some of the lesser known catholic traditions. I'm curious though – I'm in Australia, where the seasons are backwards – should we reverse what we offer our days for? For example, the Lenten Ember Day should be offered for the grape harvest, rather than for the flowers? Food for thought anyways!
Wow, thank you for this post! I didn't realize they were still officially recommended. I guess I will be observing them now.
Catching up here…thank you for this post – much to learn here!
Another example of replacing Church customs with “choice” as determined by our poorly formed consciences. (And of course we can see how well that’s worked out. /s)
Father Ripperger explains fasting during Lent as an opportunity to acquire a well formed habit, and on ember days and vigils of feast days as an opportunity to continue to practice this spiritual discipline.
For feast days that falls on an Ember or Rogation day, which would take precedence? If I’ve got my calendar right, in 2020 the feast of St. Anthony of Padua is the same Saturday as the Summer Rogation day following Pentecost. As a tangent to that, how do you handle the three special days for your children if they fall on a day of fasting and abstinence or a feast day?
It’s always the feast of St. Mark on the same day as the major Rogation Day, so that seems like an indication that they can coexist. So that’s what we do in our house. If someone’s special day falls on a Friday or an Ember day, they get to pick what we do and what we eat within the parameters of the day. There are plenty of meat-free dinners my kids like. If it’s a full fasting day, like Ash Wednesday, we take a page out of the liturgical calendar and move our observance of the family member’s special day.
If the major rotation (April 25th) falls on a Sunday, is penance still reccomended? Next year (2020) April 25th is a Sunday. I only noticed this because of filling my calendar for the coming year!
Correction: Next year (2021), whoops!
Nope! A Sunday would outrank a Rogation Day.
So For the one “following” Ash Wednesday, does that mean actually falling on Ash Wednesday or the next Wednesday after Ash Wednesday? I am trying to write them on my calendar =)
It means the Wednesday after Ash Wednesday.
P.S. I have wall calendars in the shop in printed or digital download versions (plus a digital download desk calendar) that have all the Ember Days and other recommended fasting days right on there!
Could you please help me clarify whether this is currently recommended by the Church and the US Bishops or if it’s no longer particularly recommended? I was talking to my husband about it and trying to read more about it. All mention of it has been removed from canon law, the Roman missal, the Catechism, etc after the statements you referenced were published and I don’t think the bishops have mentioned it since, so I don’t think it’s actually a current recommendation, but if it is, I want to do it. If it’s not, my husband says no. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with voluntarily adopting an old tradition that isn’t put forward anymore by the Church. I consider you an expert – what’s the true status?
Unless a document has been formally revoked or superseded it remains in effect. The Bishop’s Pastoral Statement On Penance And Abstinence is the most recent guidance the faithful have on fasting and abstinence rules. So that’s what we use to guide our family practices.