Wednesday, September 21, 2011

SFC challenge: Observe the Ember Days!

Ahhh... the seasons: the very rythym of the earth on display. Slowly but surely, we're moving from summer into fall. The days are getting shorter and the weather is (sloooowly) cooling off - even down here in Mississippi.

Of course you know all about the changing seasons. But did you know that the Church, in her wisdom, has long recognized these changing seasons with something called "Ember Days"?

Yep. Four times a year, the Church sets aside three days (a successive Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) to draw our collective attentions back to God and to his wonderful creation. These four periods coincide with the beginnings of each natural season. Today starts the Fall Ember Days.

A little background is in order

According to the Old Testament, Jews were called to fast four times each year, marking the start of each season (see Zechariah 4:19). In addition to this, observant Jews (our forefathers in faith) also fasted two days each week: on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Early Christians carried on the tradition of fasting two days each week, but they moved their weekly fast days to Wednesday (the day that Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot) and Friday (the day that Jesus suffered and died on the Cross).

So, for centuries, Christians fasted every Wednesday and Friday. And even today, our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches still observe a strict fast every Wednesday and Friday, in accord with ancient Christian tradition. In the West, however, the Roman Catholic Church eventually amended the old two day fasts each week to keeping only Fridays as penitential days (something we Catholics are bound to observe every Friday, BTW, either by abstaining from eating meat or by "some other act of penance" ... but that's for another post) But four times each year, at the change of the seasons, on the Ember Days, the Catholic Church observes the old two day fast (Wednesday and Friday) and adds a third day: Saturday.

When and why

The Ember Days come at the same time each year and are always near the start of a natural season, helping Christians to mark each change of season with penance, fasting and thankfulness. The first Ember Days of the Church year fall on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday in the week after the Feast of St. Lucy (December 13th). The spring Ember Days come after Ash Wednesday; the summer Ember Days fall after Pentecost and the fall Ember Days (which start today and continue this Friday and Saturday), always fall on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday in the week after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14th). The old way of remembering when the Ember Days were was: "Lucy, Ashes, Dove and Cross."

"So," you're saying, "this is nice and all, but I've never heard any of this. What does it mean to me today?"

I'm glad you asked.

Ember Days are one of the traditions of our Catholic faith which, sadly, have largely disappeared in popular observance since Vatican II. But they serve an important purpose: they call our attention to the rhythm of God's creation and can spark our thoughts to better stewardship of our natural resources and the created world. They help Catholics to stay "in tune" with nature by using the world's movement in time and seasons as a spiritual "alarm clock" which calls us back to a closer walk with our Creator. In a world full of man-made distractions, the idea of using the earth's seasons as regular calls to prayer and fasting rings of common sense and is refreshingly simple.

So, where are the Ember Days on my Catholic calendar?

Well, the new universal Church calendar introduced in 1969 did not mark the Ember Days but, instead, the Church's General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the instructions for the post-Vatican II Mass) asked the Catholic bishops' conference in each country to create a national Church calendar that would include, among other things, the feast days of blesseds from that country that are not included on the universal Church calendar. "In the drawing up of the national calendar," say the Instructions, "...Ember Days should be indicated" (GIRM, paragraph 394).

Essentially, then, the national conferences of Catholic bishops in each country were left with the responsibility of seeing to it that national (also called "local") calendars were created. Whether or not these calendars retained the traditional Ember Days, though, seems to have become optional. As you could probably guess by now, the bishops of the U.S. never officially retained the Ember Days on the Church calendar for our country while many other countries' bishops kept them. For we American Catholics, then, observing the Ember Days are optional. Some Catholic calendars that you purchase still mark the days as "optional days for prayer and fasting."

So, (at this point), the Ember Days are optional. But what a great option they are! Not only do they reconnect us to an ancient Christian observance, but they can help us to re-focus on our spiritual life as sure as the seasons change. And if observing the Ember Days draws you into a greater appreciation for the majesty and wonders of God's creation and if they lead you to offer up some extra prayers and fasting to our Triune God, then observing the Ember Days is a very good thing to do.


Our challenge to you? Observe the Ember Days. Be a rebel and re-claim an important piece of the Church's liturgical cycle. It's really easy to do. And like Jesus, who regularly withdrew to fast and pray in the wilderness, it gives you an important doorway to sacrificial and focused prayer.

How do you observe Ember Days?

It's pretty simple, actually. The Ember Days are traditionally days of fasting and partial abstinence from meat. In other words, to observe a day of fasting, you would eat no more than one light meal during the day. Because it is a day of partial and not full abstinence from meat, that one meal could include meat. In addition to fasting and partial abstinence (a personal sacrifice which you should offer up to God in thanksgiving), you might also give alms to the poor. You can do this by saving the money you would have spent on meals and snacks on your days of fasting this week and donating them to a charity such as the Clayton Stevens Fund at St. John's or some other charity. Remember, the Ember Days are today (Wednesday), Friday and Saturday.

We at CCM Ole Miss are always interested in practices and observances that help us draw us closer to God and help us to reclaim and reinforce our Catholic identity. We'll talk more about the idea and the place of Catholic identity and re-connecting to timeless traditions in future posts, but I'll leave you with a teaser: we aren't the only ones who are thinking this way.

Hope you have a great Ember Day!