December 15-21, 2002
volume 13, no. 147

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Catharine Lamb

An Ember Day Challenge

Think about it: Which price is steeper? Offering oneself to God through fasting and abstinence during Ember Days, or feeling the heat of the everlasting embers - as a casualty of convenience - because one offered himself up to the world? Because of God's gift of free will, the choice is yours, only you can direct your destiny.

    "During the timeframe when our technology advanced to unforeseen horizons, endangering the environment more than ever before, depleting our natural resources at an unprecedented rate, the Conciliar Church decided to wipe Ember days from the calendar. As with so many things the Church has done in the past 40 years, it seems like a paradox to now be calling for an appreciation of the environment, making it look like we've been so lax in our duty, when in fact the church of the new order dropped the ball."

    People are often curious as to why Traditional Catholics want to retain the ancient tradition of Ember days. Ember days are those days of fast, abstinence and prayer occurring on a quarterly basis throughout the year. They include the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday marking the beginning of the seasons. Regarding Ember days, the Catholic Encyclopedia says, "The purpose of their introduction, 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."

    Rev. Fr. Leonard Goffine's The Church's Year, explains the importance and meaning of Ember days as follows:

    According to the testimony of Pope Leo, [Ember days] originated in the time of the Apostles, who were inspired by the Holy Ghost to dedicate each season of the year to God by a few days of penance, or, as it were, to pay three days interest, every three months, on the graces received from God. The Church has also commanded us to fast at the beginning of each of the four seasons of the year, because it is at this time that she ordains the priests and other servants of the Church, which even the Apostles did with much prayer and fasting. Thus she desires that during the Ember days Christians should fervently ask of God by prayer, by fasting and other good works, worthy pastors and servants, on whom depends the welfare of the whole Christian flock; she desires that in the spring Ember days we should ask God's blessing for the fertility of the earth; in summer for the preservation of the fruits of the field, in autumn when the harvest is ripe, and in winter when it is sheltered, that we should offer to God by fasting and prayer a sacrifice of thanks, petitioning Him to assist us, that we may not use His gifts for our soul's determent, but that we refer all praise to Him, the fountain of all good, and assist our neighbor according to our means (The Church's Year, Sarto House, 1999, p. 8).

    Ember days cause us to stop in the midst of all our activity and attribute honor to God as the seasons change. They require us to pause and consider the magnitude of what is going on around us as the earth continually undergoes the natural changes instituted by God, giving us spring, summer, fall and winter. No matter how modern we think we are, we are still at the mercy of the changing seasons.

    While this practice was fine and good for the Church for centuries, modern man abandoned Ember days with the blink of an eye after Vatican II. It's much easier in our day to celebrate spring with a new set of patio furniture, or start off the winter season with a new pair of skis. To the god of mammon we will gladly give undue reverence at every season.

    Surely, keeping the fasts of the Ember days doesn't automatically make one holy, but like all the traditional practices of the Church, these special days are meant to help turn our attention away from ourselves and concentrate on our mission as Christ's disciples. In a day when Americans have more stuff, more food, more entertainment and an easier lifestyle than ever before, doesn't it seem appropriate that the Church would especially want to help us learn more about fasting, using God's gifts of nature in moderation, and assisting the needy?

    Father Moderator writes on about Traditional Fasting, Abstinence and Ember Days:

    The traditional days of fast, partial abstinence, and (complete) abstinence from meat as observed since 1952 are as follows:


        All persons over seven years of age must abstain. This means that they may not take fleshmeat, meat gravy, or meat soup at all on days of complete abstinence, which are all Fridays (except on holydays of obligation), Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday (until noon), and the Vigils of the Immaculate Conception and Christmas. By the decree of the Sacra Congregatio Concilii, dated December 3, 1959, the fast and abstinence of the Vigil of Christmas may, at the option of the individual, be anticipated on December 23.

        They may take meat, but only at the principal meal, on days of partial abstinence, which are Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the Vigils of Pentecost and of All Saints' Day.


        All persons over twenty-one and under fifty-nine years of age must fast. This means that on a fast day they may have only one principal or full meal and two smaller meals. They may eat meat at this principal meal, except on days of complete abstinence. At the two smaller meals they may not have meat, but they may take sufficient food to maintain their strength. However, these two smaller meals together should be less than a full meal. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids, including milk and fruit juices, may be taken any time on a fast day. The days of fast are the weekdays of Lent including Holy Saturday (until noon), the Ember Days, and the Vigils of Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception, All Saints' Day, and Christmas (or December 23).

        Those not bound to fast may eat meat as often as they wish, except on days of complete abstinence (when it may not be eaten at all), and on days of partial abstinence (when it may be eaten only at the principal meal). When a person's health or ability to work would be seriously affected by fasting or, in even rarer cases, by abstaining, a traditional priest/confessor should be consulted to determine whether the law obliges.

        In granting these concessions, the bishops urged the faithful:

      • to attend daily Mass during the period of fast and abstinence [if this is not possible, one might say all or part of the Divine Office, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Most Holy Rosary]
      • to receive Holy Communion often
      • to take part more frequently in exercises of piety
      • to give generously to works of religion and charity
      • to perform acts of kindness toward the sick, the aged, and the poor
      • to practice voluntary self-denial
      • to pray more fervently

    Eucharistic Fast.

        The fast to be observed before the celebration of Mass or the reception of Holy Communion is traditionally, from the early Church, a strict fast from all solid food and beverages, including water, from midnight preceding Mass.

        In 1956, Pope Pius XII limited the period of time for the observance of the Eucharistic fast before the celebration of Mass or the reception of Holy Communion, which some traditional Catholics follow, to three hours from solid food and alcoholic beverages, and to one hour from non-alcoholic beverages, not including water.

        In allowing this limitation, however, the pope stated: "We earnestly exhort the priests and faithful who are able to do so to observe the venerable and time-honored form of the Eucharistic fast before the celebration of Mass and the reception of Holy Communion" (Motu Proprio Sacram Communionem), that is, the strict fast from midnight. (

    So then what happened to the Ember Days? These meaningful and necessary disciplines went the way of all that hinted of the Church before Vatican II. The result? You know only too well. Instead, the modern Church tries to make discipleship easy and comfortable by requiring as little as possible from us. Even the traditional fast during Lent has been reduced to an absolute minimum, requiring fasting on only two days during the entire season. Today's Catholics are soft and lazy as a result. Ember days only matter when you realize how helpful they are in preparing us for the reality of taking up our crosses and following Christů.a rigorous journey where the soft and lazy will most likely fall by the wayside.

    Meanwhile, the Holy Father recently signed a document on the environment along with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. The Pope is asking the people of the world to be more aware of our duty to protect the environment. He has also recently requested that we consider the importance of water and the marvelous value and grandeur of the mountains. It is ironic that the celebration of Ember days, had they not been dumped for the sake of modernity, would have been the perfect avenue for the Church to continue reaching the faithful, constantly reminding us of our duty as stewards of the earth. In these days however, it seems that the Church is big on talk and showmanship but hesitant to implement anything requiring action or sacrifice on the part of the faithful.

    During the timeframe when our technology advanced to unforeseen horizons, endangering the environment more than ever before, depleting our natural resources at an unprecedented rate, the Concilia Church decided to wipe Ember days from the calendar. As with so many things the Church has done in the past 40 years, it seems like a paradox to now be calling for an appreciation of the environment, making it look like we've been so lax in our duty, when in fact the church of the new order dropped the ball.

    We must also seriously ask why the new order so willingly dropped a practice which involved direct prayer and petition to God for the newly ordained. Is it a coincidence that since Ember days were purged from the calendar we have seen a devastating decline in priests and new vocations to the priesthood? Is it no longer necessary for the whole Church to take time out and focus on prayer and fasting for those being ordained?

    Those with power in high places could easily reinstate Ember days, realizing that it would be for the good of the faithful as well as the good of all God's creation. However, I think they'd rather die than admit that such practices prior to Vatican II had any merit. Rather than asking if certain practices could honestly be of benefit to the Church, the modern church establishment appears to be consumed with what it considers to be a more important issue. The essence of that issue is a willingness to sacrifice whatever is necessary in order to protect the reputation of an ecumenical council and the popes who instigated and implemented it no matter what the outcome has been, regardless of the mounting number of fatalities.

    There is a great misunderstanding in the Church today, pitting Traditional Catholics against modern Catholics, charging that Traditionalists are old fashioned, narrow minded people stuck in a nostalgic time warp. This "nostalgia myth" has served to effectively discredit those who simply long for what is true, for what is of benefit to growth in holiness, for what actually works regardless of the time period from which it emanated. It's not a battle against everything new but an admission that much of what is new that has been dished up for us is empty, sterile and just plain doesn't work! The removal of Ember days from Catholic practice is only one of many casualties which has cost the faithful a great deal in wholesome, spiritually helpful traditions. The modern church has emptied itself of nearly everything that might prove inconvenient to the faithful. To my way of thinking, this appears to be contradictory to the Church's age-old duty to help the faithful attain holiness.

    For those who doubt the efficacy of Ember days, I challenge you to actually bite the bullet and attempt to observe the upcoming Ember days during Advent. I'm confident that you will find out just how focused and dedicated it requires you to be in the midst of Christmas preparation; to offer up prayer and fasting at a time when the world tells you to be partying and overindulging. Go ahead and try out this ancient tradition that is guaranteed to give you a taste of inconvenience for the sake of the Kingdom. And may God bless you abundantly for it!

Catharine Lamb

For more on fasting and abstinence and Ember Days, see The Meaning of Ember Days in Advent

December 15-21, 2002
volume 13, no. 147
Shears and Tears of a Lamb

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