Wednesday, February 24 – Ember Day

The Ember days, which fall on a Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the same week, occur in conjunction with the four natural seasons of the year.

Autumn brings the September Embertide, also called the Michaelmas Embertide because of their proximity to the Feast of St. Michael on 29th September. Winter, on the other hand, brings the December Embertide during the third week of Advent, and Spring brings the Lenten Embertide after the first Sunday of Lent. Finally, summer heralds the Whitsun Embertide, which takes place within the Octave of Pentecost.

In the 1962 Missal the Ember days are ranked as ferias of the second class, weekdays of special importance that even supersede certain saints’ feasts. Each day has its own proper Mass, all of which are quite old. One proof of their antiquity is that they are one of the few days in the Gregorian rite, which has as many as five lessons from the Old Testament in addition to the Epistle reading, an ancient arrangement indeed.

Fasting and partial abstinence during the Ember days were also enjoined on the faithful from time immemorial until the Second Vatican Council when the popularity of these observances atrophied. It is the association of fasting and penance with the Embertides that led some to think that their peculiar name had something to do with smoldering ash, or embers. But the English name derives from their Latin title, the Quatuor Tempora or ‘Four Seasons’.

The history of the Ember days brings us to the very origins of Christianity. The Old Testament prescribes a fourfold fast as part of its ongoing consecration of the year to God (Zech. 8:19). In addition to these seasonal observances, pious Jews at the time of Jesus fasted every Monday and Thursday. Early Christians amended both of these customs. The Didache, a work so old that it may actually predate some books of the New Testament, tells us that Palestinian Christians in the first century A.D. fasted every Wednesday and Friday – Wednesday because it is the day that Christ was betrayed and Friday because it is the day He was crucified. The Wednesday and Friday fast were so much a part of Christian life that in Gaelic one word for Thursday, Didaoirn, literally means ‘the day between the fasts’. After this weekly fast became less prevalent, it was the Ember days which remained as a conspicuous testimony to a custom stretching back to the Apostles themselves.

The Ember days stand out as the only days in the supernatural seasons of the Church than commemorate the natural seasons of the earth. We are invited to consider the wonder of the natural seasons and their relation to their Creator. The four seasons, for example, can be said to indicate the bliss of Heaven, where there is ‘the beauty of spring, the brightness of summer, the plenty of autumn, the rest of winter’ (from a prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas).

In addition to commemorating the seasons of nature, each of the four Embertides takes on the character of the liturgical season in which it is located. The Advent Ember days, for example, celebrate the Annunciation and the Visitation, the only times during Advent in the 1962 Missal when this is explicitly done. The Lenten Embertide (today, Friday and Saturday) allows us to link the season of spring, when the seed must die to produce new life, to the Lenten mortification of our flesh. The Whitsun Embertides, curiously, have us fasting within the octave of Pentecost, teaching us that there is such a thing as a ‘joyful fast’ (the medieval called this the jejunium exultationis – the fast of exultation). The Fall Embertide is the only time that the Roman calendar echoes the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement, the two holidays that teach us so much about our earthly pilgrimage and about Christ’s high priesthood.

As Chesterton quipped, Christians can truly love nature because they will not worship her. The Church proclaims nature’s goodness because it was created by a good and loving God and because it sacramentally reflects the grandeur of God’s goodness and love. The Church does this liturgically with its observance of the ‘Four Seasons’, the Embertides.

It is a shame that the modern Church unwittingly let the glow of Embertide die at the precise moment in history when their witness was needed the most, but it is a great boon that Summorum Pontificum makes their celebration universally accessible once again.

12 Responses to “Wednesday, February 24 – Ember Day”


  1. 1 Jeff Garcia February 24, 2010 at 21:35

    Wow Gabriella, I never knew that, thanks for posting it, very interesting, so happy I find your blog.

  2. 2 anne bender February 24, 2010 at 22:36

    What a fascinating custom! I will definitely want to participate in it!

  3. 3 Victor S E MOUBARAK February 24, 2010 at 22:49

    Very interesting. Thanx.

    God bless.

  4. 4 Raman Chakravorthy February 25, 2010 at 11:12

    I too was not aware of the Ember Days😦 but you did make me surf the net for more info.
    It’s saddening to think how many beautiful Catholic traditions have been put aside😦

  5. 5 Brian February 25, 2010 at 18:51

    Hello Gabriella !

    So interesting – I never heard of the “Ember Days.”
    Your images here are awesome.

    We are having a very “white” season here in NY and NJ. We are in the midst (right now) of another snowstorm….

    Thanks for your kind comments…. “Acolyte” installation is this Monday evening…..

    God bless…

  6. 6 Pénélope February 25, 2010 at 19:35

    Thank you for another instructive post.
    There must be limits to how much change the church can endure; I mean, our Church has always changed small things here and there as time goes by but in these past 50 years it’s completely changed everything! Everything — even the rosary!😦
    If our saints were to come back to earth today (even my grandmaman I’m sure), they just wouldn’t recognize their beloved church😦

  7. 7 Kee February 25, 2010 at 23:04

    Hi Gabriella
    Thank you for posting about this lovely old tradition. I hadn’t been aware of it until now. I love your pictures of the Four Seasons too: Mucha, I think?

    You are quite right about the Irish words for days of the week. Wednesday is ‘Ceadaoin’ [pronounced kade een] which means 1st fast, Friday is ‘Aoine’, [eena] meaning the main fast and as you mentioned, ‘Deardaoin’ [dare deen] is the day in between 2 fasts. Thank you for reminding me of that!

  8. 8 Cinzia February 26, 2010 at 00:41

    Another very instructive and intelligent post. Thank you.

    I realise more and more how ignorant I am of my own religion …. imagine how little I knew BEFORE I started learning all these wonderful things from your blog 😦 (red face of shame)

    It is very sad to see so much change in the Catholic Church (and not much at all for the better). Yes, as Penelope said, even the rosary has been tampered with!! I realise there is now a fourth set of mysteries and I am not even sure what they all are (one is the transfiguration I think). Anyhow, I still recite the rosary the “old” way, the way I have been doing for many many years.

    Long live Pope Benedict … the longer he lives, the more chance of many things going back to the traditional way.

    Attending morning Mass on weekdays at primary school/parishes in Melbourne’s suburbia speaks volumes about how much destruction has taken place in the Church …. how dismal and abysmal everything has become.

    I look at the bare, desolate altar covered in a dark, ugly, polyester cloth and at the two vases of plastic flowers on the side, the electric candles, old black benches and try to picture in my mind’s eye the magnificent altars of days gone by: tall, majestic candles, beautiful, big arrangements of exquisite fresh flowers, a white cloth draped over the altar and spilling down the sides, intricately embroidered and absolutely gorgeous, a crucifix in the middle and an open bible on the side ….

    And that is just the altar ….

    How did it all go so wrong?? 😦

  9. 9 Pénélope February 26, 2010 at 08:44

    How did it all go so wrong?? I join you Cinzia in asking this question. This video is for you:🙂
    This is what happens in my church where once a month the bishop has allowed latin mass. Here in France the latin masses are full and growing the new mass, however, is emptier and emptier.

  10. 10 Cinzia February 26, 2010 at 10:21

    Wow Penelope!! I never knew there would be a video representing exactly what goes through my head whenever I enter the church.

    Amazing!!! 🙂

    You are fortunate that at least you have the Latin Mass once a month in your church. I have not yet been successful in any of my requests. And I have to travel at least two hours to get to either one of the two places where Latin Mass is celebrated.

    But I am not giving up hope …..

    Merci beaucoup pour le video e a bientot!

  11. 11 churchmouse February 26, 2010 at 18:16

    Thank you, Gabriella, for a thorough explanation of Ember Days. You’ve answered something I’ve been wondering about all these years! I remember seeing them listed on Church calendars when I was growing up (I do miss those calendars) but never really learned what they were.

    Agree with Cinzia and Penelope in wondering why the last 50 years had to change if not obliterate Catholic traditions so dramatically.

    It seems that, now we know what they are, we can observe Ember Days ourselves.

    Thank you for such informative and inspiring posts!


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