Ember days

 

These four times are each kept on a successive Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and are known as “Ember Days,” or Quatuor Tempora, in Latin. The first of these four times comes in Winter, after the the Feast of St. Lucy; the second comes in Spring, the week after Ash Wednesday; the third comes in Summer, after Pentecost Sunday; and the last comes in Autumn, after Holy Cross Day. Their dates can be remembered by this old mnemonic:

Sant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angaria quarta sequens feria.

Which means:

Holy Cross, Lucy, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost,
are when the quarter holidays follow.
These times are spent fasting and partially abstaining (voluntary since the new Code of Canon Law) in penance and with the intentions of thanking God for the gifts He gives us in nature and beseeching Him for the discipline to use them in moderation. The fasts, known as “Jejunia quatuor temporum,” or “the fast of the four seasons,” are rooted in Old Testament practices of fasting four times a year:

Zacharias 8:19:
Thus saith the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Juda, joy, and gladness, and great solemnities: only love ye truth and peace.

Our Israelite ancestors once fasted weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but Christians changed the fast days to Wednesdays (the day on which Christ was betrayed) and Fridays (the day on which He was crucified). The weekly two day fasts were later amended in the Roman Church to keeping only Fridays as penitential days, but during Sidrach, Misach, Abdenago, and the Angel in the furnaceEmbertides, the older, two-day fasts are restored. Saturdays (the day He was entombed) were added to these Ember times of fasting and are seen as a sort of culmination of the Ember Days: for example, on Ember Wednesdays, there is one lesson given during the Mass; on Fridays, there are none; and on Saturdays, there are four or five. Interestingly, the story of Sidrach, Misach, and Abdenago’s escape from King Nabuchodonosor’s fiery furnace with the help of an angel is commemorated on each Saturday of Embertides except that of Whit Embertide, and part of their beautiful hymn of praise follows (Daniel 3:52-56. See readings at the bottom of the page for this gorgeous hymn in its entirety).
In any case, the Dominican, Blessed Jacopo de Voragine (A.D. 1230-1298), Archbishop of Genoa, wrote a collection of the stories of the Saints known as “Legenda Aurea” (Golden Legend). This work gives eight quite interesting reasons to fast during Ember Days:

The fasting of the Quatretemps, called in English Ember days, the Pope Calixtus ordained them. And this fast is kept four times in the year, and for divers reasons.

    For the first time, which is in March, is hot and moist. The second, in summer, is hot and dry. The third, in harvest, is cold and dry. The fourth in winter is cold and moist. Then let us fast in March which is printemps for to repress the heat of the flesh boiling, and to quench luxury or to temper it. In summer we ought to fast to the end that we chastise the burning and ardour of avarice. In harvest for to repress the drought of pride, and in winter for to chastise the coldness of untruth and of malice.

    The second reason why we fast four times; for these fastings here begin in March in the first week of the Lent, to the end that vices wax dry in us, for they may not all be quenched; or because that we cast them away, and the boughs and herbs of virtues may grow in us. And in summer also, in the Whitsun week, for then cometh the Holy Ghost, and therefore we ought to be fervent and esprised in the love of the Holy Ghost. They be fasted also in September tofore Michaelmas, and these be the third fastings, because that in this time the fruits be gathered and we should render to God the fruits of good works. In December they be also, and they be the fourth fastings, and in this time the herbs die, and we ought to be mortified to the world.

    The third reason is for to ensue the Jews. For the Jews fasted four times in the year, that is to wit, tofore Easter, tofore Whitsunside, tofore the setting of the tabernacle in the temple in September, and tofore the dedication of the temple in December.

    The fourth reason is because the man is composed of four elements touching the body, and of three virtues or powers in his soul: that is to wit, the understanding, the will, and the mind. To this then that this fasting may attemper in us four times in the year, at each time we fast three days, to the end that the number of four may be reported to the body, and the number of three to the soul. These be the reasons of Master Beleth.

    The fifth reason, as saith John Damascenus: in March and in printemps the blood groweth and augmenteth, and in summer coler, in September melancholy, and in winter phlegm. Then we fast in March for to attemper and depress the blood of concupiscence disordinate, for sanguine of his nature is full of fleshly concupiscence. In summer we fast because that coler should be lessened and refrained, of which cometh wrath. And then is he full naturally of ire. In harvest we fast for to refrain melancholy. The melancholious man naturally is cold, covetous and heavy. In winter we fast for to daunt and to make feeble the phlegm of lightness and forgetting, for such is he that is phlegmatic.

    The sixth reason is for the printemps is likened to the air, the summer to fire, harvest to the earth, and the winter to water. Then we fast in March to the end that the air of pride be attempered to us. In summer the fire of concupiscence and of avarice. In September the earth of coldness and of the darkness of ignorance. In winter the water of lightness and inconstancy.

    The seventh reason is because that March is reported to infancy, summer to youth, September to steadfast age and virtuous, and winter to ancienty or old age. We fast then in March that we may be in the infancy of innocency. In summer for to be young by virtue and constancy. In harvest that we may be ripe by attemperance. In winter that we may be ancient and old by prudence and honest life, or at least that we may be satisfied to God of that which in these four seasons we have offended him.

    The eighth reason is of Master William of Auxerre. We fast, saith he, in these four times of the year to the end that we make amends for all that we have failed in all these four times, and they be done in three days each time, to the end that we satisfy in one day that which we have failed in a month; and that which is the fourth day, that is Wednesday, is the day in which our Lord was betrayed of Judas; and the Friday because our Lord was crucified; and the Saturday because he lay in the sepulchre, and the apostles were sore of heart and in great sorrow.

Canticle of the Creatures
By St. Francis of Assisi (b. ca. 1181)

Most High, all powerful, good Lord God, Thine are the praises, the glory, the honour, and every blessing, To Thee alone, most High, do they belong, and no man is worthy to mention Your name.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, with all Thy creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day and through whom Thou givest us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour; and bears a likeness of Thee, Most High One.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven Thou hast formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through which Thou givest sustenance to Thy creatures.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, through Sister Water, which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom Thou lightest the night, and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be Thee, My Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praised be Thee, My Lord, through those who give pardon for the sake of Thy love, and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are they who endure in peace, for by Thee, Most High, they shall be crowned.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, through our Sister Death, from whom no living man can escape. Woe only to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed are those whom death will find in Thy most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks And serve Him with great humility.
(Fish Eaters)

The origins of the observance are open to considerable debate. Some hold that the concept of the observance predates the Christian era, and that since Ember days have never been observed in the Eastern Churches, any pagan origins must lie in the west. Some point to specific Celtic origins, linked to the Celtic custom of observing various festivals at three-month intervals: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. In any event, the ancient Christian church often sought to co-opt pagan feasts and reorient them to different purposes, and that seems to have been applicable in this instance.
In pagan Rome offerings were made to various gods and goddesses of agriculture in the hope that the deities would provide a bountiful harvest (the feriae messis in July), a rich vintage (the feriae vindimiales in September), or a productive seeding (the feriae sementivae in December). At first the Church in Rome had fasts in June, September, and December. The Liber Pontificalis ascribes to Pope Callixtus I (217-222) a law regulating the fast, although Leo the Great (440-461) considers it an Apostolic institution. When the fourth season was added cannot be ascertained, but Pope Gelasius I (492-496) speaks of all four.
From Rome the Ember days gradually spread unevenly through the whole of Western Christendom. In Gaul they do not seem to have been generally recognized much before the 8th century.
Their observation in Britain, however, was embraced earlier than in Gaul or Spain, interestingly, and Christian sources connect the Ember Days observations with Augustine of Canterbury, AD. 597, said to be acting under the direct authority of Pope Gregory the Great.
Prior to the reforms instituted after the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church mandated fasting (only one full meal per day plus two partial, meatless meals) on all Ember Days (which meant both fasting and abstinence from meat on Ember Fridays), and the faithful were encouraged (though not required) to receive the sacrament of penance whenever possible. On February 17, 1966, Pope Paul VI’s decree Paenitemini excluded the Ember Days as days of fast and abstinence for Roman Catholics.
(wikipedia)

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