Ember Days -Thanksgiving to the Divine Bounty

Jules Breton Evening Call


  …Then he saith to his disciples, The harvest indeed is great, but the labourers are few.
Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth labourers into his harvest.
Mt:9: 37-38

There are four sets of Ember Days each calendar year; three days each – Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Ember Days fall at the start of a new season and they are ordered as days of fast and abstinence. The significance of the days of the week are that Wednesday was the day Christ was betrayed, Friday was the day He was crucified, and Saturday was the day He was entombed.

The Four Occurrences of Ember Days are as follows:
Winter: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of St. Lucy.
Spring: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Ash Wednesday.
Summer: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost.
Fall: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

They are called in the Liturgy, Quatuor Tempora (four times), because they occur four times a year. The origin of the English word “ember” used in this connection, is not quite clear. It may come from the Anglo-Saxon word “ymbren” meaning a circuit, used possibly to designate the circuit of the seasons, or it may be a corruption of the Latin words, or as some try to prove, it may have sprung from the ancient custom of eating nothing on these days until night and then only a small cake which was baked under the embers. This cake was called ember bread.

These days were instituted for the purpose of beginning the different seasons with prayer and penance, of asking God to preserve the fruits of the earth and thanking him for their abundance. Coming about the beginning or end of the seasons of the year they suggest an appropriate opportunity for praise and thanks to the Author of every best gift. We are indebted to divine providence for everything we possess. God has so created the world and framed natural laws that the earth brings forth fruit in richness, and affords a plentiful harvest for our wants and necessities. We must not be so presumptive as to think that the seed sprouts forth and the grain ripens at our bidding. True, we must co-operate with the designs of God. We must cultivate the soil and sow the seed and reap the harvest, but God gives the increase. St. Paul says: “Neither he that planteth is anything, nor he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. The custom, therefore, of giving thanks to God for the abundance of the things that nature produces is a most salutary one.

The Ember days were also instituted in connection with the ordination of priests and other ministers, which generally takes place during them, though they may be ordained at other times. The idea is that the whole Church is in prayer while Holy Orders are being conferred upon the priests and other ministers of God.

They are days of fast and abstinence, and prayer and thanksgiving. We should endeavor to enter into the spirit and carry out the purpose for which they were instituted. We should certainly fast and abstain. It would, moreover, be greatly in harmony with the spirit of the time to say the Litany of the Saints or some other appropriate prayers in thanksgiving to the divine bounty. As the whole Church is praying for those who are being ordained on these days, so we should also pray for them. We can go to Mass or receive Communion or say the Litanies for them.

Catholic Belief and Practice
James E. McGavick


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