Question: What are "ember" days? How do they relate to the other days of fasting and abstinence? Why should we fast or abstain? Who should fast and abstain?
Answer:Through fasting and abstinence we cooperate with God to "extinguish our vices, elevate our understanding, receiving virtue and its reward."1 By detaching ourselves somewhat from earthly allurements, we are better able to contemplate the realities of heaven. Traditionally, Roman Rite Catholics abstain from meat on the appointed days after the age of seven; those over twenty-one but not yet sixty fast by taking only one full meal and two small meals. Some days call for fasting alone (most weekdays of Lent), some days call for abstinence alone (most Fridays), some days call for both (Fridays of Lent, Ember Days, Ash Wednesday, and some vigils).
The Ember days are intended to sanctify each of the four seasons; asking God to provide the temporal things needed for our salvation, and to sanctify the clergy who are normally ordained on Ember Saturdays. (The four Saturday Masses have an number of extra readings, allowing for a reading between ordination to each of the minor and major orders.) The Ember observance goes back to about the fifth century, but was fixed on the calendar as we have it only by Gregory VII in the twelfth. They are always a consecutive Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday; following the third Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost, and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.2
Certain vigils, like those of Christmas, Assumption, and All Saints are observed with fasting and abstinence in order to better prepare for the feast that follows.
Unless an important feast falls intervenes, Fridays are observed as days of abstinence but do not require fasting. The 1983 Code of Canon law did not abolish Friday abstinence as many mistakenly believe, but gave each national hierarchy the authority to substitute a different form of penance if they felt it more appropriate. The new Code requires fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.3
The Church also observes several days of supplication that are not normally associated with either fasting or abstinence. Since the sixth century, the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the feast of the Ascension are observed as "rogation" days (rogare = to pray), asking God to avert His just wrath for our misdeeds. There is a special rogation Mass in purple vestments, a procession, and the chanting of the Litany of the Saints. The litanies on these three days are called the "lesser litanies," in contrast to the "greater litanies" recited on April 25th. The April observance, which falls accidentally on the feast of Saint Mark, is Roman in origin, instituted to avert the calamities deserved by virtue of our sin, and to implore a bountiful growing season and harvest. The rogation Mass is also associated with the greater litanies. Where practical, the feast of Saint Mark, which was a later addition to the calendar, is celebrated with a second Mass proper to the Evangelist.
1. The Roman Missal, Lenten Preface.
2. In the missal of Pope John XXIII the fall Ember
Days are always in the third week of September, suppressing the readings at
Matins from Tobias concerning marriage.
3. 1983 Code, canon 1251.
2. In the missal of Pope John XXIII the fall Ember Days are always in the third week of September, suppressing the readings at Matins from Tobias concerning marriage.
3. 1983 Code, canon 1251.