Ember Days – For Thanksgiving and for Priests

prayer photoToday* (see note below – there’s some controversy here), this Friday, and this Saturday are days that the Church sets aside for fasting. In modern times, particularly in America, there doesn’t seem to be any fasting imposed — instead a hippy motto of “do whatever you want” prevails, and staring at your navel for a moment seems to suffice. I can ramble for hours on this very point, and have in fact done so in the past, even wondering if American Bishops hate fasting. If, however, you would like to participate in a time-tested tradition of Mother Church, read on.

Although today would have been your first day to fast, we have written about Ember Days in the past. I suspect much of our audience has at least heard of it before, but there does seem to be a good portion of people that although they have heard the term, don’t really know what it’s about.

From my trusty old catechism, the most basic description given is:

The Ember days are three in number, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, at the commencement of each quarter (quatuor tempora); of old these were the appointed seasons for ordination to the priesthood.

The Ember days of the winter season fall in the third week of Advent, of the spring quarter in the second week of Lent; in summer in Whitsunweek and in autumn in the third week in September. The Jews were accustomed to fast four times a year (Zach. viii. 19). Christ enjoined upon us the duty of praying for good priests, in the words: “The harvest indeed is great, but the laborers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest that He send forth laborers into His harvest” (Matt. ix. 37, 38).

In past times (yes, I mean to sound like I am sighing in grief that there is no such thing as fasts anymore), this explanation was given in the section on the Commandments and the duty to follow the laws of the Church:

3. We ought to keep the fast of the Ember days strictly, in order to implore almighty God to send us good priests, and to thank Him for the benefits received during the past quarter.

Thus, there are two purposes that seem like a forgotten art of Catholic living:

  1. Thanksgiving. Giving thanks to God for the good things that happened in the past three months. That’s an easy amount of time to remember things over. Make a list! Mention it to God. Say, open you mouth and say it:  “Thanks, God!”
  2. As an offering for priests.  Is the need for this apparent? Even the priests we have need offerings for their benefit. Seems like a no brainer that fasting for their benefit does more than resharing memes on tumblr or Facebook, right? It even does far more for a priest than re-sharing “buy a priest a beer day” pics.

As a practical matter, Mass is part of the celebration of Ember days. Back when your parish supported traditional practices, it is interesting to see the comment in this old catechism about night masses. Note how it refers to Ember Days in connection with night Masses being a way to evade persecution:

The early Christians celebrated Mass at night, in order to escape the persecution of the heathen. And in later years it was customary to offer the holy sacrifice during the night several times in the course of the year; at Christmas, on Holy Saturday, on St. John Baptist’s Day, and on Ember days.

Don’t we live in persecution these days? Seems like a way to encourage the intercession of all those early Christians — by joining them in a practice that had a direct connection with what they did. Fortunately, daily Mass is available in most areas with only a minor inconvenience. Unfortunately, in many other areas, it is with great inconvenience. Although the Mass would not be specifically for the intentions of Ember days, going to Mass is part of the devotion over all.

The priests used to wear purple vestments (just like Lent and Advent):

4. Purple is used in Advent and Lent, and upon vigils and Ember days.

However, today, you likely will see green, as well as Friday.

Explaining the purpose was tied together with an inherent duty on the lay faithful to pray for priests.  The catechism made this very clear when discussing the sacraments, with this section:

7. It is the duty of the faithful to pray God to send them good priests.

Our Lord says: “Pray ye the Lord of the harvest that He send forth laborers into His harvest” (Matt. ix. 38). Remember that a priest is the salvation or the perdition of his flock. In the Old Testament we read that when other scourges were of no avail to turn the people, hardened in sin, from their evil ways, God sent upon them the heaviest scourge of all, wicked and corrupt priests. Let us therefore make it our continual prayer, that we may have good priests. The Ember days are appointed for this purpose. Special prayer should be offered to the Holy Ghost, for unless a priest is enlightened by the Holy Spirit we may apply to him the words: “If the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit” (Matt. xv. 14).

What’s that? Did you miss the mention of corrupt priests?

Corrupt Priests? what? read that quote again. Ember days are a powerful cure!

Didn’t fast today? Maybe skip that sweet after dinner, and say an extra rosary. Surely we’d all agree that God deserves our thanks — with specific things we call to mind from the past three months. And, offering God some fasting merits graces for our priests so dearly needed.

Friday and they Saturday would be the other two days. Perhaps by Friday, you’d have together your list of things to mention to God for which to thank Him personally.

praying with Mary


AUTHOR’S NOTE:  It is with a good dose of humility that your author admits a terrible mistake here. Last week was the third week of September — not this week. (ugh!) It’s confusing for your author because the other way to remember Ember Days for the Fall is by the week after the Exaltation of the Cross, which fell on a Sunday this year.  Thank God that one reader did mention that they did not know about Ember days prior to reading this. Thank God! Perhaps your author’s inane mistake here was but a way for God’s Providence to work. At least since after 1969 the American Bishops have not levied Ember Days in the U.S., if you made the mistake as well, or just found out about Ember Days, try it this week, and I promise to post on the correct day in December (actually, we should have an active calendar on our site by then that will remind us all ahem especially your author).  –JBM

ANOTHER AUTHOR NOTE:  Thanks to another reader for spotting this post by Fr. Hunwicke which explains why it’s a confusing year for the date of Ember Days. Maybe your author had it right to begin with? I’m confused but it appears this is the correct week for Ember Days after all.  scratching head –JBM  anybody else have further explanation?  Again, this wouldn’t be confusing if the American Bishops would publish it — after all, 1969 did not abrogate Ember Days, but just made them optional by national conference or local Bishop.

This article, Ember Days – For Thanksgiving and for Priests is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

John B. Manos

John B. Manos, Esq. is an attorney and chemical engineer. He has a dog, Fyo, and likes photography, astronomy, and dusty old books published by Benziger Brothers. He is the President of the Bellarmine Forum.
  • Nope…didn’t know about this…which is sad. But now I do. Thanks..keep this good info coming.

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