There are four sets of ember days, roughly corresponding to the four seasons, hence their name in Latin, “quattuor tempora.” It is a linguistic mystery as to how we got the name “ember” days, except that it is probably a corruption of the Latin “quattuor tempora.” It surely has nothing to do with “embers” as in “ashes.” Many think these days are connected to the harvest, however, there are no harvests in winter! In all likelihood, the basic purpose was to engage the faithful in prayer before ordinations. At any rate, these are designated as days of focused prayer and fasting.
When do they fall? On Wednesdays, Fridays (both with a history of fasting in the Early Church), as well as Saturdays. As for the specific times, when I was in grammar school, the Sisters taught us a ditty by which to remember their occurrence: “Lenty, Penty, Crucy, Lucy.” That is, around Lent, Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Cross and that of St. Lucy.
The regulations for fasting on those days were quite demanding: For all over the age of seven, partial abstinence from meat on the Wednesdays and Saturdays (that is, meat only at the principal meal) and total abstinence on the Fridays (which was already the case, anyway). For those between the ages of 21 and 59, one full meal and the other two meals not to exceed one full meal; exceptions were envisioned for those who performed heavy manual labor, those with weak health, or pregnant women (since they were eating for two!).
Some may counter by pointing out that St. Paul seemingly did away with all the old Jewish dietary laws. Yes – and no. Christians do not fast or abstain in keeping with Jewish proscriptions; they do it in response to the teaching of Our Lord. You should remember the episode in which Jesus is challenged about the eating and drinking habits of His disciples. He replies: “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” (Lk 5: 34-35). In other words, while Christ the Bridegroom is with His Church here below, fasting would be inappropriate, however, when He is taken from our sight (at the Ascension), fasting will be most appropriate.
While all the historical information may be interesting, it must be noted that the observances I have described were essentially eliminated with the revision of the cycle of the liturgical year after the Second Vatican Council. Or were they? Actually, if you read the Universal Norms of the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, you will find this:
In order that the Rogation Days and Ember Days may be adapted to the different regions and different needs of the faithful, the Conferences of Bishops should arrange the time and manner in which they are held. Consequently, concerning their duration, whether they are to last one or more days, or be repeated in the course of the year, norms are to be established by the competent authority, taking into consideration local needs. The Mass for each day of these celebrations should be chosen from among the Masses for Various Needs, and should be one which is more particularly appropriate to the purpose of the supplications. (nn. 46–47)
In other words, the ember days were not eliminated in the liturgical reform; on the contrary, conferences of bishops were supposed to arrange for their observance in keeping with local needs and conditions. As in so many other situations, our episcopal conference did nothing!
That said, the failure of bishops to act does not absolve us of the personal responsibility to fast according to the mind of Christ and the immemorial practice of the Church. Prayer and fasting were conjoined in the preaching of Our Lord; what God has joined, we ought not put asunder. As a seminarian, I served as vice-principal of an inner-city parish school in Trenton. About a third of the school population were black Baptist children. One day, a grandmother approached me on the playground: “Young Father, can I give you some advice? I think you’re gonna be a great priest, but I want to give you some advice.” “Fire away,” said I. “If you don’t pray, you don’t stay. If you don’t fast, you don’t last.” Can I hear an “Amen” for that?
Truth be told, the near-disappearance of fasting has made us all flabby Christians. Sometimes I hear would-be “conservative” or “traditional” Catholics bemoan the fact that the Mass prayers for Lent, for example, had many of the references to bodily penance deleted in the revision process. That’s true. I go on to ask, however, how many of these folks observe the former norms for the weekdays of Lent or the ember days? How many even know them? One can make a legitimate argument for maintaining those prayers intact, if – and only if – we are taking up the challenge presented by those orations. We can’t lie when we speak to God.
Many of the modifications of Church regulations on matters like fasting were made on the presumption that there would be more merit if Christians did something out of intense personal devotion, rather than obedience to an external law. That was surely the mindset of Pope Paul VI, who often referred to the Church as “the expert in humanity.” With all due respect to the holy pope, I think an “expert in humanity” would know better than to assume that we all do the right thing for all the right reasons. No, not infrequently, we have to be prodded into doing the right thing – and the purer motive emerges later.
With that in mind, let me propose a few areas where we can take up the Gospel challenge, even though no law presently binds us to do so.
Let’s start with the Communion fast. Permit me to be very blunt: The one-hour fast is a joke. Fasting, by definition, means abstaining from food until one experiences hunger. If you are genuinely hungry after one hour, you have an eating disorder! At present, on the way to Sunday Mass, someone could stop at McDonald’s, chow down on a whole meal and not break the one-hour fast. The midnight fast was noble but well-nigh impossible to practice once afternoon and evening Masses were permitted. Further, the rigidity with which it was practiced by many also led to its demise. People didn’t brush their teeth before heading to church, for fear that a drop of water might go down their throats and thus violate the fast. Pope Pius XII’s mitigation of the midnight fast to three hours for solid foods and one hour for liquids made eminently good sense. Why not adopt that as a norm for oneself?
Fridays throughout the year are still penitential days and abstinence from meat is still required, unless, repeat unless, one substitutes another penance. It seems everyone heard the first clause but went deaf for the second clause. Ironically, in the “old days,” even Catholics who didn’t go to Sunday Mass abstained from meat on Fridays. It was the one infallible sign of “being Catholic.” Nasty anti-Catholic types even called us “mackerel-snappers”! Not only is penance on Friday in union with our Suffering Lord meritorious for the individual believer, there is also the tremendous value of offering a communal witness to society-at-large of our desire to be a penitential people. Very wisely, the bishops of England and Wales in 2011 returned to mandatory abstinence from meat; would that the bishops of the United States would follow their lead. In the meantime, do the right thing on your own steam.
What I have said about Friday abstinence applies equally to the weekdays of Lent. You don’t need a bishop to tell you that you’re a sinner in need of penance. Make what was formerly required by law your own personal practice. Why? Because the collective wisdom of spiritual writers down the ages has always held that bodily penance leads to spiritual growth, and that fasting ought always precede feasting; indeed, that the feasting takes on its greatest significance when it is preceded by fasting. No Easter Sunday without a Good Friday. Post crucem, lucem (After the Cross, the light) – but only “after”!
Married couples who practice natural family planning also know the value of abstinence from the marital act for themselves individually and for them as a couple. Yes, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder!
Which leads to another abstinence I would heartily recommend, and that is abstinence from Holy Communion from time to time. One of the upsides of the Covid experience is that many of the faithful realized that they had been taking reception of the Eucharist for granted and that the forced abstinence really did make them yearn for the Bread of Life as they never had before. Interestingly, Cardinal Ratzinger (before he changed his name to Pope Benedict) urged people to consider occasional abstinence from Holy Communion as an act of Christian solidarity with those Catholics who, for various reasons, can’t receive the Sacrament (for example, the divorced and remarried), thus eliminating that automatic, unthinking emptying of pews, row by row, in the mad rush to the altar.
Finally, there is a very practical rationale undergirding fasting, and it’s this: As sinners, we have to atone for our sins. Put simply: Pay now, or pay later. I don’t know about you, but I would sooner pay now, rather than later.
And don’t forget the wise counsel of that lovely black Baptist grandmother: “You don’t fast, you don’t last!”
(Editor’s note: This homily was preached on September 25, 2020, an ember day, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.)
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