Catechism Lesson 10: The Purpose of Ember Days

Ember Days: Marking the Changes of the Seasons

The Church celebrates Ember Days four times each year (unless you are Novus Ordo). They are tied to the changing of the seasons, but also to the liturgical cycles of the Church.

The spring Ember Days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the First Sunday of Lent; the summer Ember Days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost; the fall Ember Days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross; and the winter Ember Days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of Saint Lucy (December 13).

Ember days were set to compete with or replace certain pagan festivals.

The Romans were originally given to agriculture, and their native gods belonged to the same class. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding.

The Ember Days are a perfect example of how the Church (in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia) "has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose." The pagan practice, though directed at false gods, was praiseworthy; all that was necessary was to transfer the supplications to the true God of Christianity. We see st. Paul doing the same type of thing when he saw the statue of the Unknown god.

But Paul standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. For passing by, and seeing your idols, I found an altar also, on which was written: To the unknown God. What therefore you worship, without knowing it, that I preach to you: (Acts 17:22-23)

The adoption of Ember Days by Christians happened so early that Pope Leo the Great (440-61) considered the Ember Days (with the exception of the one in the spring) to have been instituted by the Apostles. By the time of Pope Gelasius II (492-96), the fourth set of Ember Days had been instituted. Originally celebrated only by the Church in Rome, they spread throughout the West starting in the fifth century.

The Ember Days are celebrated with fasting (no food between meals) and half-abstinence, meaning that meat is allowed at one meal per day. Complete abstinence from meat is required on Ember Friday.

As always, such fasting and abstinence has a greater purpose:

  • To thank God for the gifts He gives us through nature.

  • To pray and fast for the conversion of sinners. Think of your family members, friends, those out side of the Church etc.

  • Asking God to do great things during the new season that we are beginning. Asking for faith to trust that He will work mightily in our lives.

  • Praying and fasting for the forgiveness of our own sins and for our own conversions as well. 

The Church has given us these wonderful tools to help us in our relationship with Christ and his Church and to help bring us one step closer to becoming the Saint he desires for us to be.

Catechism Lesson 10: The Purpose of Ember Days
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