Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Ember days are special days of prayer and penance which correspond to the beginning of the four seasons. They were traditionally kept on a successive Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in the appropriate season: after the Feast of St. Lucy (Summer), the week after Ash Wednesday (Autumn), after Pentecost Sunday (Winter), and after the Feast of the Holy Cross (Spring). Their dates were remembered by this old mnemonic:
Sant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angaria quarta sequens feria.
Holy Cross, Lucy, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost,
are when the quarter holidays follow.
Their purpose, besides that of the discipline of prayer and fasting, was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy. Four times a year, the Church sets aside three days to focus on God through His marvelous creation. They seem to have corresponded to pagan harvest festivals which were duly ‘christianised’ as an acknowledgment of God’s Lordship over all.
Ember Days were associated with different events in the life of the Church. They were days favored for priestly ordinations, prayer for priests, first Communions, almsgiving and other penitential and charitable acts. Because of the days’ focus on nature, they are also traditional times for women to pray for children and safe deliveries. Folklore also had its part. Again because of the focus on things natural, it was thought that the weather conditions of each of the three days of an Embertide foretold the weather of the next three months – and thus great importance was placed on praying for favourable weather for the forthcoming harvest.
While their observance has undoubtedly waned, if not disappeared in some places, since the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council, Ember Days remain an important part of the patrimony of the Church. Prayer and penance are always necessary in our struggle with sin, and with a growing awareness of our dependence on a fragile environment, we are encouraged to thank the Creator for His gift of creation, and to seek his help in caring for it. For this reason, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference has in recent years decided that the Church here should observe the first Fridays in Autumn and Spring each year as special days of prayer and penance.