Ember Days

views updated Jun 11 2018


By an ancient tradition in the Roman rite, the historical 12 liturgical and penitential days arranged in four triads (Quattuor tempora, "the four seasons"). According to this tradition, a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in a determined week of each season were constituted Ember Days in the liturgical calendar: winter (the week after the third Sunday of Advent), spring (the week after the first Sunday of Lent), summer (in the week after Pentecost Sunday) and autumn (after the feast of the Holy Cross, September 14). They were observed liturgically in that each Ember Day has its own proper Office and Mass celebrated in violet vestments (red, however, in Pentecost). Though formerly observed as days of fast and total (1917 Codex iuris canonici (Rome 1918; repr. Graz 1955) c.1252.2) the Ember Days were not included among the days on which fast or abstinence are required according to the reorganization of penitential discipline contained in Pope Paul VI's apostolic constitution Poenitemini of Feb. 17, 1966.

Origin. Though the ultimate origins of the Ember Days are obscure, certain Jewish and pagan influences were operative in their formation. In view of the fact that the roots of the primitive Christian Church were in Judaism, it is not surprising that its religious practice influenced the discipline of the penitential system of the ancient Church. As early as the Didache, at the end of the apostolic period, therefore, Wednesday and Friday were observed as fast days, later as stational days, too. The penitential character of Wednesday was very probably inspired by the consideration that it was the day on which the Passion (the arrest of the Lord) commenced, while Friday was the traditional day on which the death of Christ was commemorated by the Church.

According to the Liber pontificalis (ed. L. Duchesne, 1:141) Callistus I (d. c. 223) created, basically, the Ember Days by constituting Saturday in addition to Wednesday and Friday as a fast day to be observed three times (summer, autumn, winter) in the year "in accordance with the prophecy of grain, wine and oil." We have here an example of Christian practice adapting (paralleling) a much older Roman usage, the so-called pagan feasts of nature, the feriae messis (harvest time in June to July), feriae vindemiales (vintage time in September), and feriae sementinae (seed time in December). But the early Church (e.g., Leo, Sermo 90.1; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 54:447) saw also in these fast days a reflection of the ancient Jewish observance of which the book of Zechariah (8.19) speaks: "The fast days of the fourth, the fifth, the seventh and the tenth months shall become occasions of joy and gladness." While the origin of the penitential character of Saturday is somewhat uncertain, it seems probable that it developed through its close association with Friday. Thus Innocent I (d. 417), who extended the Saturday fast to every week of the year, wrote (Epistola 25 ad Decentium 4; Patrologia Latina 20:555): "Reason shows most clearly that we should fast on Saturday, because it stood between the sadness [of Good Friday] and the joy [of Easter Sunday]." And the Liber pontificalis (ed. L. Duchesne, 1.222) reports that Innocent constituted Saturday a fast day "because on Saturday the Lord was placed in the sepulchre and His disciples fasted." In 494 Gelasius I appointed Ember Saturdays as the liturgical days on which ordinations were to take place.

Though Callistus instituted three seasonal fasts, which the Roman Church observed in the fourth (June), the seventh (September) and the tenth (December) months, without however further determining the specific weeks in which these fasts were to be kept, it is not altogether clear when the fourth annual fast was instituted. Primitively the Lenten fast in its totality was regarded as the spring fast. Thus Leo described the practice of the Church that was current in his day: "The [fasts] are so spread throughout the whole circle of the year that the law of abstinence is operative at all seasons. Thus indeed we observe the spring fast at Lent, the summer fast at Pentecost, the autumn fast in the seventh month, and the winter fast in this month [December] which is the tenth" (Sermo 19.2; Patrologia Latina 54:186). Much later, the Gelasian Sacramentary (seventh century) gives evidence of a new fast in March, the first month, which was celebrated as a fast distinct from the Lenten observance. By the end of the seventh century this March fast had come to coincide with the fast of the 1st week of Lent [A. Chavasse, "Les Messes quadragésimales du Sacramentaire Gélasien," Ephemerides liturgicae 63 (1949) 260261]. This gradual development was confirmed by Gregory I (d. 604), so that at the end of his pontificate the Church in Rome was observing seasonal (March, June, September, December) fasts of three days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday).

The Ember Days, conceived and developed as a product of the Roman Church, were spread throughout northern Europe by missionaries who had been educated in the liturgical traditions of Rome. By the middle of the ninth century the observance of the four groups of Ember Days was widespread in the West. In the time between Gregory I (d. 604) and Gregory VII (d. 1085) the variable factor in the celebration of the Ember Days was the date of their occurrence. Different local churches followed different usages within the broad framework prescribed by Gregory I. The decision of Gregory VII, taken at the Roman Synod of 1078, is believed to represent the first authoritative determination of the specific days of the year on which the Ember Days would be observed by the universal Church in the course of the liturgical cycle (Bernold of Constance, Micrologus 24; Patrologia Latina 151:995).

Stational Observance. In the ancient church of Rome special churches were assigned for the liturgical observances of these days: the ecclesia collecta (where the people gathered) and the ecclesia stationalis (whither the people proceeded for the celebration of the liturgy of the day). At the Mass on Ember Wednesday three lessons were read; on Friday, two; and on Saturday, six (plus the Gospel), which may be a vestige of the old title, Sabbatum in XII lectionibus. It is possible that at one time 12 lessons were read on Ember Saturday; or it may be that at one time the six lessons were read both in Latin and in Greek. In the early Church Ember Saturday was an allnight (Saturday to Sunday) vigil, which culminated in the ordination rite on Sunday morning so that properly speaking there was no Liturgy celebrated on Saturday itself. Six of the holy orders were conferred, one after each of the first six lessons, the priest-hood before the final verse of the Alleluia or the Tract that stands immediately before the Gospel. In terms of Ember Saturday as an ordination day the choice of the traditional stational churches can be explained: St. Mary Major (scrutiny of the candidates on Wednesday), the Twelve Apostles (public approbation of the candidates on Friday), St. Peter's (ordination on Sunday).

Bibliography: a. adam, The Liturgical Year: Its History and Meaning after the Reform of the Liturgy (Collegeville 1981). a. nocent, The Liturgical Year, 4 v. (Collegeville 1977). t. j. talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, rev. ed. (Collegeville 1992). t.j. talley, "The Origin of the Ember Days: An Inconclusive Postscript," Rituels: mélanges offerts à Pierre-Marie Gy, ed. p. de clerck and e. palazzo (Paris 1990) 46572. i. h. dalmais, p. jounel, and a.g. martimort, The Liturgy and Time, The Church at Prayer v. 4 (Collegeville 1992).

[r. e. mcnally/eds.]

Ember days

views updated May 23 2018

Ember days (OE, ymbren). Four groups of three days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) in the W. church year, fast days ‘around’ or ‘about’ four seasons, Advent (mid-Dec.), Lent (Ash Wednesday), Pentecost, and Holy Cross Day (14 Sept.), kept as days of fasting and abstinence. They are now associated, as days of preparation, with ordination.