“Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie”
So the old rhyme goes, listing the times of year when the Ember days fall. These are days of fasting and abstinence which come four times a year at the change of the seasons. The Ember Days occupy the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week on which they fall. As indicated by the rhyme, they come the week after Ash Wednesday, Pentecost, Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14), and Feast of St. Lucy (Dec. 13).
The dates of the fasts follow the ancient harvests of the Mediterranean—cereals, grapes, and olives—and so these occasions likely started as Roman harvest festivals. As early as the 3rd century, the Church saw that these could be Christianized, and repurposed them for fasts.
It is fitting for these to occur at the change of seasons, as this practice preserves the agricultural origin of the fasts. Their purposes—to give thanks to God for the fruits of the Earth, to teach people to use those gifts in moderation, and to assist the needy—echo those of the ancient Roman harvest festivals.
The anchoring of these days in the rhythm of the agricultural Mediterranean also serves as a reminder of the Incarnational aspects of Christianity. Though many of us are far from the Holy Land, Ember Days are an opportunity to connect with the culture in which Christianity takes seed.
Observance of Ember Days includes general fasting (one full meal and two partial meals per day and abstinence from meat). Availing oneself of the sacrament of Confession is also recommended. In addition, Pope St. Leo the Great encourages donating the money saved by fasting to the poor. Ordinations have also been associated with Ember Days since the 5th century, since days of fasting seem a natural preparation for such occasions. Traditionally, the liturgy for the day would include several readings in addition to the usual selection and the Gospel. These special lessons tend to focus on thanksgiving and the bounty of God.
Although largely abandoned after Vatican II, the observance of Ember Days has seen a recent resurgence. Several bishops have called for their diocese to join them in prayer and fasting for Ember Days, especially in the wake of the abuse revelations of this summer. Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburg rekindled Ember Days as part of his “Year of Penance” to atone for the sins brought to light by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.
A fun quirk of history makes it especially fitting to observe Ember Days by eating a certain type of Japanese food. The very term “Ember Days” comes into English from a corruption of the Latin Quatuor Tempora (“four times”). Another surprising derivative is the Japanese tempura. In the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries to Japan observed Ember Days by eating battered seafood or vegetables (which fit the program for meat-free fasting). This style came to be associated with Ember Days, and took on its related name. The dish quickly spread to most of Southern Japan and makes a wonderful way to observe the Ember Days fast.