Ember Days are days of fast and abstinence on Wednesday (partial abstinence), Friday (full abstinence) and Saturday (partial abstinence) four times a year. The Church has always had this mirroring of the liturgical calendar with the four seasons: the Third Week of Advent - Winter after December 13, the First Week of Lent - Spring, Pentecost Week - Summer, and the Seventeenth Week after Pentecost - Autumn between September 14 and September 22.
These occur at the beginning of the four seasons, which begin with the liturgical periods known as Ember weeks. This has been the practice of the Church since the fifth century. They are celebrated to implore God's blessings on the fruit of the earth, those days are likewise intended as special occasions for praying for the clergy. Never has the clergy - the hierarchy of the Church - needed more prayer than this present time of grave crisis.
Ember weeks prepare those who are to be ordained to major orders or elevated in minor orders. The minor orders of Tonsure, Porter, Lector, Exorcist and Acolyte have been all but lost on the culture of the modern Church, but it was the practice for nearly 2000 years so why should it be shelved in favor of the heretical notion of lay sacerdotal commissions? It should not. We will delve, after the first of the year into this when we cover the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
The practice of Ember Days was set for the universal Church by the holy Pope Saint Gregory VII in the twlfth century with the specific purpose, as mentioned above, of consecrating the various seasons of nature to God.
During Advent, the Wednesday of Ember Week the Mystery of the Annunciation is commemorated. It is called the Rorate Mass, taken from the first word of the Introit, Isais 45: 8.
Many churches observed this date on December 18 rather than March 25 because this joyful feast occurred most often in Lent. Another reason is that the first Joyful Mystery keeps with the chronological events of Christ's life and Advent is the time of the waiting after the Annunciation. The anticipation grows daily until the Nativity of Our Lord in Bethlehem. Ember Friday in Advent was traditionally the Mass at the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Rome, with the emphasis on the "Expectation of Christ" as St. Andrew's Missal points out. On Ember Saturday of Advent, Mass was traditionally held at St. Peter's Basilica by the Pope. Saturdays are the most solemn of the Ember week because traditionally on this day the Holy Father ordains new men to the priesthood. In fact, as the St. Andrew's Missal relates,
"Everything in the Mass, moreover, bears the character of a very ancient liturgy. It calls to mind, with its numerous lessons, intermingled with responses and prayers, the earliest form of the introductory part of the Mass.
The soul that is penetrated with it finds itself filled with a holy impatience, and with the Church it aspires to the new birth of the only begotten Son of God, Who comes to deliver us fsromthe yoke of sin (Second Collect) 'While with confidence she awaits the Lord Jesus Who shall deliver us from our enemies, destroying Antichrist with the brightness of His Coming' (Epistle).
The Gospel brings before us the image of St. John the Baptist the precursor, who prepares our souls each year for the coming of the Savior. The same Gospel is again found in the Mass of the following day - [The Fourth Sunday of Advent] - because formerly the ordination, taking place in the evening, lasted well into the night, thus encroaching on the Sunday, provided it with its liturgy."
We can see how this has all been blurred by the New Mass of Paul VI which has so abandoned these beautiful traditions and safeguards. One safeguard, discipline that has been practicaly discarded is fasting, penance, self sacrifice.
Fasting and abstinence are not something to be shunned, diminished or be ridiculed. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself fasted often. He fasted forty days and forty nights before He began His public life.
By Church law, all baptized persons between that ages of 21 and 59 years are bound to observe the law of fast, and all baptized persons over 7 years of age are bound to observe the law of abstinence.
A fast day is a day on which only one full meal is allowed; but in the morning and evening some food may be taken, the quantity and quality of which are determined by approved local custom.
The one full meal may be taken either at noontime or in the evening. Only at this meal may meat be taken.
"Meat" is the flesh of warm-blooded land animals, including birds and fowl. At the principal meal meat may be taken on a day of fast except on days of complete abstinence. For centuries up until the relaxation of the penitential spirit at Vatican II, meatless days were every Friday and the vigils of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and Christmas. Today, in the post-conciliar Church only on Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent are Catholics required to fast.
Sad that 54 days of fast and abstinence, and eight days of fasting and partial abstinence have been reduced to a mere two days out of the entire year. No wonder satan has had the run of things. No wonder the modern Church is in such turmoil today by letting down her defenses. Ember Days also have been discarded.
Fasting on a day of abstinence has always meant that two other meals, both meatless, may be taken according to each one's needs; but together they should not equal another full meal. Eating between meals is forbidden; but liquids, including milk and fruit juices, are allowed. Wine, coffee, tea, cocoa, lemonade, beer, sherbets, and like preparations are also permitted.
All baptized persons between the ages of 21 and 59 are obliged to observe the fast days of the Church, unless they are excused or dispensed.
Persons dispensed from fast must, however, observe abstinence unless they have also been dispensed from abstinence.
When health or the ability to work would be seriously affected, the law does not oblige.
For this reason those of weak health, the sick, the convalescent, nursing mothers, the very poor and those engaged in hard labor are excused from the fast; also nurses and teachers. One in doubt as to his or her duties in this matter should consult a parish priest or their confessor.
A day of abstinence is a day on which we are not allowed the use of meat. Again, this has been greatly relaxed with only Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent, including Good Friday, as days of abstinence; although many Catholics, especially Traditional Catholics, still faithfully observe Fridays as meatless days out of obedience to the Truths and Traditions of Holy Mother Church. Besides being a deterrent from gluttony and serving self first, it is also a great reminder of our Catholic roots and purpose, a reminder of Christ's Own preparation for Calvary.
Food-wise, fish, snails, frogs, oysters, shrimps, and crabs may be taken on abstinence days, as well as milk, butter, cheese, eggs, and similar foods. Lard and the fat of any animals may be used in cooking and seasoning. On an abstinence day which is not also a fast day, only the quality, not the quantity, of food is regulated.
On days of complete abstinence meat, and soup or gravy made from meat, may not be used at all.
On days of partial abstinence meat, and soup or gravy made from meat, may be taken only once a day at the principal meal. However, since we no longer have partial abstinence days, this is seldom observed.
All baptized persons over 7 years of age are bound to observe the abstinence days of the Church unless excused or dispensed.
The sick and convalescent, those who do extremely hard work, and those too poor to obtain other foods are excused.
The law of abstinence binds even those not obliged to fast. One who believes he has sufficient reason to be excused should consult a priest.
When there is a great concourse of people, or if public health is concerned, the bishop can grant a dispensation for a particular locality, or even for the entire diocese, from the law of fast or of abstinence, or both. In recent years many bishops have granted dispensations very liberally to the degree that the intention of fasting has been greatly lessened.
The Church, in her Second Commandment of the Church "To fast and abstain on days appointed" has always commanded us to fast and to abstain in order that we may control the desires of the flesh, raise our minds more freely to God, and make satisfaction for sin.
"I chastise my body and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps after preaching to others I myself should be rejected" (1 Corinthians 9:27).
It is not because meat and other foods are in themselves evil that the Church prescribes fast and abstinence. She merely commands us to deny ourselves for the glory of God and the good of our souls.
A good Christian will be careful to observe the laws of fast and abstinence. One who cannot fast should do some other penance.
The forty days' fast observed in Lent is in imitation of Our Lord, Who fasted forty days in the desert. It is a preparation for Easter. Friday as a day of abstinence commemorates Our Lord's Good Friday.
By fast and meditation on the sufferings of Christ, we can best induce in ourselves a proper contrition for our sins. Fast and abstinence are pleasing to God only when we also refrain from sin and engage in good works. We should honor Our Lord's passion during Lent by abstaining from worldly pleasures and amusements. We should accept trials patiently, uniting them to Our Lord's.
Even from merely natural motives, fast and abstinence, far from ruining the health as some people claim, on the contrary are a preservation of health. Reputable physicians will bear out this fact. To stay a step ahead of the devil we must condition ourselves spiritually. Today spiritual exercise is more needed than ever.
We will repeat this thought in the First Week of Lent when we treat the Ember Days of Lent - Spring. This will be repeated for Pentecost and next September when we will cover the final Ember Days of the liturgical year.
We encourage you to read Catharine Lamb's column correlating with this, An Ember Day Challenge.
For previous installments, see APPRECIATING THE PRECIOUS GIFT OF OUR FAITH Archives