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.