This past Sunday was Gaudete Sunday. As we have noticed as we work our way through this penitential season of Advent, the liturgical color is violet. However, on Gaudete Sunday, the priest is permitted to wear rose-colored vestments, and we light a rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath. Gaudete Sunday, as the Introit for the Mass suggests, is a day in which we rejoice in the Lord. Because of the joyful nature of the day, the typically violet color gives way to Liturgical Rose, a cross between penitential violet and joyful white.
Just like the liturgical colors mean something, so do the special days which we observe this week. Those days are called Ember Days. In Latin, we call the Ember Days Quatuor Tempora, which simply means “four times.” The Ember Days are celebrated four times each year - once in each season. In my most recent article, “Yes, December 25th is the Biblical Date of Christmas” I mentioned that it was common for the early Church to Christianize pagan celebrations. The Ember Days are such an occasion.
The Catholic Encyclopedia states, “The Romans were originally given to agriculture, and their native gods belonged to the same class. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding.” Scott P. Richert, in his article “The Tradition of Ember Days in the Catholic Church” points out that the Church adopted Ember Days so early, that Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) considered the Ember Days to have been instituted by the Apostles. The one exception would be the Spring Ember Days, which were not instituted until later in the fifth century.
Unfortunately, with the revision of the liturgical calendar and the imposition of the Novus Ordo Missae in 1969, the Vatican left the celebration of Ember Days up to each nation’s Bishops’ Council. Ember Days are still practiced in many parts of Europe - especially in more rural areas. In the United States, Ember Days were suppressed from the liturgical calendar. However, many traditional Catholics and traditional Catholic parishes still observe them.
So, what exactly is an Ember Day? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Ember Days are special days set aside by the Church that are used to “thank God for the gifts of nature, teach men to make use of them in moderation, and assist the needy.” As mentioned above, the Ember Days occur at four times throughout the year, once in each season. In the Spring, the Ember Days occur on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the first Sunday of Lent. In the Summer, they occur on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost. In the Fall, they occur on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the third Sunday in September. In the Winter, they occur on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the feast of Saint Lucy, which is celebrated on December 13.
Ember Days are additional days of penance in the Church, and as such, the liturgical color for Mass is violet. As Ember Days are penitential, they are also fasting and abstinence days. This means one regular-sized meal and two small meals which together do not equal the size of the regular meal. They are also abstinence days, though the abstinence rules are a little different for Ember Days. The Wednesday and Saturday Ember Days are days of partial abstinence, meaning you may eat meat for one meal (generally the principal meal of the day). Since Friday is a total abstinence day (according to Traditional norms), Ember Friday is also a day of total abstinence.
I think it is quite wise that Holy Mother Church positions the Winter Ember Days where she does. This year, in particular, the Winter Ember Days occur in the third week of Advent, as we have just celebrated a moment of joy in this penitential season on Gaudete Sunday. It is a reminder of the penitential nature of the season. When the Ember Days occur throughout the rest of the year, we are reminded in each season to, as I mentioned above, thank God for the gifts of nature, teach men to make use of them in moderation, and assist the needy. This is a great reminder throughout the entire year.
Another thing that the Ember Days do for me, personally, is reignite my faith. I think of myself as the ember in a fire. If one pulls a glowing ember away from a fire, it will gradually grow dim until it goes out. However, if one takes that dim ember and places it back near the fire, it will quickly reignite. In the same way, Ember Days give us the opportunity (especially outside of Advent and Lent) to quickly reignite our faith through acts of penance. If you have never observed Ember Days before, I encourage you to take this moment, now, as we complete our preparation for the coming of Our Lord, and give them a try.
The fasting and abstinence is easy and can be done on your own. Below are links to the readings and prayers from Mass (Traditional Latin Mass) for each of this week’s Ember Days.