Question: Some of my Anglo-Catholic priest friends are resurrecting the practice of Ember Days. From conversations with them and quick research on-line, it seems that Ember Days are a bit like some of the practices in Lent. Are you able to shed light on the history and practice of Ember Days? Is it possible to revive the practice of Ember days in Lutheran churches today? If so what would that look like in family worship, daily office at church, public prayer vigils, and retreats?
Frank answers: The Ember Days are four brief periods of fasting spread roughly equally throughout the year. They are uniquely Roman in origin. They are not called “Ember Days” in the Roman sources, but in Latin are called the quattuor anni tempora (the “four seasons of the year”), or formerly jejunia quattuor temporum (“fasts of the four seasons”). “Ember” derives from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren (from ymb, around, and ryne, a course), referring to the cycles of the year. (In the same way the English language uses “Lent” from the Anglo-Saxon lencton, referring to the “lengthening” of the days, rather than the Latin Quadragesima, or “Forty Days”.)
The practice goes back to ancient pre-Christian Roman practices of offering sacrifices to the gods and feasting at times of harvesting. We should understand that sacrifices and feasts went together in ancient world because meat offered to the gods was also shared among the offerers. There were three such harvests in ancient Rome: in early December the fall harvest, in June the grain harvest, and in September the grape harvest.
These days were well ensconced in Roman culture even when that culture became more urban and Roman Christians participated in the festivities. But the bishops of Rome typically weened Christians away from the pagan aspects of the celebrations and made them times of fasting rather than feasting. Christians typically fasted throughout the year on Wednesdays and Fridays. To this was added a Saturday fast leading up to the Saturday night Vigil of Sunday Eucharist. Christians also correlated these times of fasting with the fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months mentioned by the Old Testament prophet Zechariah 8:10 to give them a biblical justification, and perhaps on this basis added an additional fasting period in early March. There are extant a number of sermons preached by Pope Leo the Great (440-61) during these times that make references to the practice of fasting.
In 494 Pope Gelasius I decreed that ordinations to the diaconate and presbyterate (priesthood) would be conferred on the Ember Saturdays and urged the faithful to fast along with the candidates for holy orders, just as they fasted along with the candidates for Baptism before the Easter Vigil. This has remained a practice of the Roman Catholic Church. In recent years the faithful were urged to pray for vocations to the priesthood during the Ember Days.
A Roman Catholic ordination of a priest before Vatican II
These Roman fast days were slow to be accepted outside of Rome. The practices were implemented only as Roman liturgical books were imported into various lands. The Embertides were observed first in Britain because Roman books were used from the beginning of the work of evangelization (St. Augustine of Canterbury ca. 600). The fast days came to be observed in the Frankish Empire with the importation of Roman liturgical books under Charlemagne in the eighth century. They were implemented in Spain in the eleventh century when it adopted the Roman Missal. The archdiocese of Milan resisted for a thousand years because it had its own liturgical rite.
In 1085 Pope Gregory VII regulated the exact times when these fast days would be observed by correlating them with the liturgical year. This is an arrangement still kept today. The “four seasons” are kept during the week after the third Sunday of Advent (but after St. Lucia’s Day on December 13), the week after the first Sunday in Lent, the week after the Day of Pentecost, and the week following Holy Cross Day (September 14). The fasts of December and March were redundant since these occurred within the fasting seasons of Advent and Lent.
Since Vatican II the regulation of the observance of the Ember Days has been left to the national bishops’ conferences. In the United States, the bishops’ conference has decided not to celebrate them, but individual Catholics can and many traditional Catholics still observe them as a way of focusing on the change of the natural seasons of the year and especially to intensify the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent. The fasting recommended is no food between meals, meat at one meal during the day, and complete abstinence on the Ember Friday.
The Embertides were well entrenched in the English culture. This may have continued after the Reformation simply as times for ordinations. However, the real revival of Ember Days occurred in the Anglo-Catholic movement of the late 19th century. In the Episcopal Church the Ember Days were provided for in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and again in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which states on p. 18: “The Ember Days, traditionally observed on the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays after the First Sunday in Lent, the Day of Pentecost, Holy Cross Day, and December 13.” The rubrics observe that since ordinations are not necessarily scheduled at the traditional ember times, the propers for Ember Days may be used in advance of an ordination at any time. Thus, in the Episcopal Church the Ember Days are associated more with ordination than with the times of the year. (The image featured above this post is of an Anglican ordination.)
Martin Luther was critical of fasting days largely because they weren’t observed by the higher clergy or even by the monks (he knew!). But he was disposed to keeping the Friday fast throughout the year and the fasts of the “four seasons” to help the simple people and the young mark the seasons of the year and to serve as a curb on gluttony. (See his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount in Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 21, pp. 159ff.—well worth reading for his views on what Christian fasting should be!). Perhaps owing to Luther’s influence, the Ember Days continued to be listed in the Church Orders and were typically observed not only as times of fasting but of catechesis and preaching. What became of the “four seasons” or any of these pre-Reformation practices in Lutheranism is historically hard to discern. Such practices were seldom officially abolished; they just died out and then weren’t provided for in the next liturgical books. The Age of Rationalism is assumed to be the usual culprit, but some real historical research is needed.
As to the likelihood of the Embertides being revived in the Lutheran Churches today, I don’t see much chance of that, at least on the denominational level as some kind of top-down movement. I think it’s more likely that if they were revived in local practice as times of fasting, or caught on in regional districts or synods as times for ordinations, some attention might be given to them in work on the next worship books. Pastors who are interested in promoting the Embertides could provide appropriate prayers related to the change of the seasons and the practice of fasting for use in the home.
Ordinations in the Lutheran Church of Finland
Ember Days complicate the calendar. For example, the Roman fast of the third week of the tenth month (December) mentioned by Pope Leo was observed before there was an Advent season in Rome. When the Gallican six-week Advent was merged with the Roman two-weeks of preparation for Christmas to create the current four week Advent season around the tenth century, the December Ember Days were enclosed within a four-week season of fasting on Wednesdays, Friday, and Saturdays (the typical fast for Advent). The same complication pertains to the Lenten fast. The Ember Days provide a lesser fast within a greater fast. The only thing that really distinguished the Ember fasts during Advent and Lent, once those liturgical seasons were established, was the communal preparation for ordination. The fasts after Pentecost and Holy Cross Day make more sense because they can be associated with the times of planting and harvesting as well as ordinations, and don’t occur during major times of fasting in the church year.
It occurs to me that the Society of the Holy Trinity, an inter-Lutheran ministerium that serves to renew the ordained ministry of word and sacrament in the Church and provides for quarterly retreats in its Rule, might be in the best position to revive awareness of the Embertides. Aspects of the Ember Days could be included in its chapter and general retreats (including some fasting). The Society already prays for the Holy Ministry and for vocations to the Holy Ministry during its retreats and practices renewal of ordination vows at its annual general retreat in September. Society members who are parish pastors might solicit the prayers of their congregations for the Holy Ministry at the Sunday services before or after Society retreats with fasting before the Sunday Eucharist (as a way to revive that practice).
I admit that this never occurred to me during the twelve years I served as Senior of the Society. But then no one had asked me to do research on the Ember Days and to reflect on what they could mean for us today. Anyone who has more information about historical or current practice is welcome to post comments on this article using the blog platform provided.
Pastor Frank Senn
Subscription to the Rule of the Society of the Holy Trinity at its annual General Retreat in Mundelein, IL in September 2012
P. S. If it helps in promoting awareness of the Ember Days, there is a Christian worship band, originally from Auckland, New Zealand, now based in Nashville called The Ember Days.