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Putting the 'Ember' in September
An Ancient Church Tradition Takes on New Relevance

by Dawn Eden

The South Asian newswire service ANI last month carried a headline one doesn’t see every day. It began, "Hindus laud Australian Catholic Church..."

Now, before divulging the rest of the headline, it should be noted that “Hindus” is a bit of an exaggeration. The article quotes only one member of that faith, self-proclaimed “Hindu statesman” Rajan Zed of Reno, Nevada, who previously made the news for protesting the Mike Myers film The Love Guru. Even so, the full headline is worth noting: “Hindus laud Australia Catholic Church for abstinence from meat on Ember Days.”

The real news here is that the Australian bishops have restored Ember Days to the liturgical calendar – which, for many American Catholics, leads to the question: What are Ember Days?

On the Tridentine calendar, Ember Days are days of fasting and abstinence from meat that take place on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week beginning each of the four seasons. For those who attend what is now known as the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, the final Ember Days of the current liturgical year are next week – September 15, 17, and 18.

The name’s origins are disputed – the Catholic Encyclopedia says it is a corruption of the Latin Quatuor Tempora, “four times,” while others say it comes from the Old English ymbren, “time” or “season.” However, there is no question that the tradition of Ember Days, in the words of Baylor University patristics professor Michael P. Foley , “brings us to the very origins of Christianity.”

Although they bear a historic link to Jewish seasonal penitential observances, Ember Days entered the Roman tradition as a Christian alternative to pagan harvest festivals. Yet, according to Father Sean Raftis, a priest serving in the Diocese of Helena who researched the days for his STL thesis, they “differed greatly” from the Roman celebrations “because they focused on fasting instead of feasting” and directed worshipers’ attention to the Eucharist.

Ember Days disappeared from the calendar with the reforms of Vatican II, but the change was not necessarily intended to be permanent. It was left to individual countries to determine whether and how to re-incorporate Ember Days into the liturgy – hence the Australian bishops’ 2008 move to partially restore them. According to a press release, the bishops saw in them an opportunity to “focus on the environment, climate change, and the responsibility of our stewardship of the world’s resources.”

Father Raftis’s paper, written three years before the Australian bishops’ decision, also sees an opportunity for a liturgical teaching moment: Bringing Ember Days back in the United States would be, he believes, an ideal means of proclaiming the “Gospel of Life” in the spirit encouraged by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae. His main thesis is that “the Church’s liturgy is a fitting and effective vehicle for promoting the Church’s vision of the dignity of the human person.”

(Recent liturgical developments, although not dealing directly with Ember Days, have provided Raftis with a validation of sorts. The USCCB announced last month that the new translation of the English liturgy includes Mass for Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life, which can be celebrated on January 22 – the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.)

What relevance might Ember Days have in modern America for those who attend Mass in the extraordinary form? Frater Alban Baker of the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem , a clerical institute that uses the 1962 liturgy, says:
In our age which is so divorced from natural rhythms, I would tend to emphasize the connection of the Ember Days with the agricultural cycle. ... [They] reinforce our complete dependence upon God as Lord of nature. Therefore if in any way the re-introduction of Ember Days can contribute a renewed sense of God’s Providence as regards our food supply, it would be a good thing.

At the same time, Baker observes, “in light of America's continually more intense rejection of the natural law, the Ember Days could rightly be practiced as doing penance for the country’s sins against nature” in a broader sense, including those related to “fundamental life issues, such as the disobedience paid to the natural law in practices such as abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual unions.”

He also sees meaning in the discipline the days require of the faithful, adding:
In our age, when the Church requires only two days of fasting in the entire liturgical year, the Ember Days as days of fast are important restorations which are rooted in the very words of Christ Himself. We cannot hope to overcome the demons which tempt and attack us, nor can we hope to overcome the demons which wage war on our country, without the practice of prayer and fasting.

Such penitential practices, says Father Terrence Gordon of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (which also uses the 1962 liturgy), is accentuated by the prayers of the Ember Days liturgy, which show “how fasting and prayer go together.” For example, the First Collect for Ember Saturday says, “we humbly beseech Thy Majesty that appeased by the fervent devotion of those who fast, Thou wouldst grant us help now and in the time to come.” Likewise, a Ember Wednesday prayer asks that “while abstaining from food for our bodies we may likewise abstain from sin in our souls.”

“St. Thomas points out that one of the reasons why we fast is so that our minds may be raised up above the things of the world,” Gordon continues. “So, fasting is essential to a more elevated prayer life.”

That leads to the other purpose of fasting – atonement for past sins. Here, Gordon notes, the words of the liturgy help the faithful in a precise way:

We can ask ourselves, how can someone who attends the Extraordinary Mass honestly pray the words ‘appeased by the fervent devotion of those who fast,’ and ‘that while abstaining from food for our bodies,’ and not carry on what the words urge him to do?

Petertherock Wrote:The real news here is that the Australian bishops have restored Ember Days to the liturgical calendar

Good for them. The only drawback regarding the current liturgical mindset is that the Ember Days, were they to have proper readings in the Mass and Office, would disrupt the general flow of things.
The way I have always heard from my traditional calendar is that ember days was only partial abstinence. This means only at your principle meal can you have any meat. Obviously Friday would be full abstinence.
The pre 1911 breviaries suggest that Ember days (with some exception is Pentecost time) were abstinence and fast days: no meat, no more that 3 meal, on one full meal. The Ember Saturday always finished with the None, so that may be considered as partial fast day, as was traditionally either the Vigil of Easter and the Vigil of Christmas.

In Hungary the ember days as fast or abstinence days were abolished sometimes before WWII.

In the liturgy the ember days were intact until 1970, although in 1960 the calculation of Ember days in September changed with the counting of the weeks of the month. In the Divino Afflatu Calendar the ember week is this week, in the 1960 Calendar it will be the next week
I have "The Catholic's Guide," 1946 Revised Edition, and it says that fasting and abstinence are to be observed on the Ember Days.
What about special diets and fasting days?

I am currently in a 12 step program called FA (Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous) to lose weight.  I started at close to 300 pounds and have already lost 30 since starting in mid-June.

Their food plan is very specific - weighed and measured amounts of very specific kinds of foods.  No exceptions.  Never allowed to skip a meal and must eat meals within certain time frames.  My sponsor says I may not fast and recommends I just eat food that I don't care for that day.  The problem is I like almost anything.

If I fast, I am going against my sponsor & this program, but I would really like to observe ember days for the first time ever.

Suggestions any one?