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Rekindling the Embers
by Fr . Thomas Crean O.P.

   ember n. (usu. in pl) Small piece of live fuel in dying fire (Pocket Oxford English Dictionary)

   One of the most ancient, and most Roman, of Christian customs is to consecrate the four seasons of the year to God by special days of prayer and fasting. Officially called the Quattuor Tempora (the Four Times), and known by similar names in modern European languages, they came into English as the ‘Ember Days’; ‘ember’ apparently being what our forefathers made of tempora.

   How ancient are they? St Leo the Great, who ascended to the papal throne in the year 440, said that they had been instituted by the apostles. Though a certain ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ may be slow to credit the statement, so wise a man would hardly have made it without good reason. We can recall the rule given by St Robert Bellarmine for evaluating traditions: ‘that should certainly be considered to be of apostolic institution, which is held as such in those churches where there has been an unbroken succession from the time of the apostles’. That certainly applied to the Church of Rome in St Leo’s day: as it still does in ours.

   Pope St Callistus I (d. 222), is often mentioned in connexion with the Ember days. The Liber Pontificalis, written several centuries after his time, speaks of him as ordering seasonal fasts. A letter purportedly written by Pope Callistus to a brother bishop states that he found three of them already in existence, and simply added that of spring. The letter is considered spurious by modern scholarship; yet even if inauthentic, it could still be accurate in this regard. The Catholic Encyclopaedia (1911) considers the Ember Days to be more ancient than Callistus.

   After all, since the perpetual cycle of the seasons is a reflection of eternity in our world of time, it’s a natural human instinct to consecrate them by religious rites. The Romans had their feriae messis in June to ask for a bountiful harvest; their feriae vindimiales, to pray for a good vintage in September, and in December their feriae sementivae or ‘sowing days’. The last-named, in particular, were a time for solemn purification and earnest entreaty. So St Luke, mentioning the time in winter after which sailing becomes unsafe, speaks simply of ‘the Fast’ (Acts 27:9). Perhaps St Paul had already baptised these winter days of expiation, so that his Gentile companions, St Luke among them, were observing them in honour no longer of Ceres but of Christ.

    But the Ember Days were not simply an early example of ‘inculturation’. St Thomas Aquinas refers us rather to a prophecy in Zechariah. “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 Judah, joy and gladness, and great solemnities” (Zech. 8:19). These four fasts were not prescribed by the law of Moses, but were kept by the Jews in remembrance of the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. And the Church’s tradition sees the Four Times, centred as they are on the ‘great solemnity’ of the Mass, as a fulfilment of the prophet’s words. Although, as St Thomas remarks, we do not keep them in exactly the same months as under the Old Covenant lest we appear to be ‘judaizing’, still, as St Robert Bellarmine writes: ‘We are not ashamed to assert, with St Leo, that the Four Times are observed from a holy and devout imitation of the ancient Jews. For although we cannot imitate the ceremonies themselves of the Jews, which were ordained to signify something still to come, yet the exercise of virtue is common to both Testaments.’

   Apart from the need for Christians not to be outdone in works of penance by the Jews, St Robert gives three reasons for the observance of the Ember Days. First, they are times to thank God for the fruits of the earth and to pray for his continued blessing on his creation and our labour. Next, they are associated with the sacrament of Orders, for as St Thomas points out: ‘by fasting, men are made ready to receive sacred orders, and to confer them; and likewise the whole people are made ready, for whose benefit men are ordained.’  Finally, the Ember Days ensure that just as each year has its Lent, and each week has its Friday, so each month will have, as it were, its penitential time: for three days of penance at each of the Four Times makes twelve days, or one for each month of the year.

   In the Middle Ages, mystical explanations of these days abounded. William Durandus, in his vast Rational of Divine Offices, connects the physical features of the seasons with the graces that Christians should seek at these Four Times. In the Ember Days of spring, we must desire that ‘the buds of virtue appear within us’; in summer, that we be fervent with the Holy Ghost; in September, we should seek to bear fruit ‘before the feast of St Michael, when the fruits are harvested’ (perhaps a reference to the archangel’s presence at the particular judgement); in winter, we should pray to become dead to the world.

   According to what records we have, the Ember Days spread from the diocese of Rome to the whole Western Church from the 6th Century onwards, being brought to England by St Augustine of Canterbury. Their position on the calendar fluctuated somewhat during the first millennium: in some places, the Spring days were kept in the first week of March, regardless of the dates of Lent. But all uncertainty was removed by that most vigorous of popes, St Gregory VII, who reigned from 1073 to 1085. He confirmed that the Ember Days were the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday that followed four significant moments in the Church’s year: the Third Sunday of Advent, the First Sunday of Lent, Whitsunday, and the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross.

   Liturgically, their most striking feature is the addition of collects, readings and graduals. The Wednesdays have two readings, excluding the Gospel, and the Saturdays, six. Since the gospel brings the total to seven, and the sacrament of Order is traditionally understood to have seven rungs, from door-keeper to priest, one order is supposed to be conferred with each reading. The Mass of Ember Fridays, on the other hand, resembles that of an ordinary feria: perhaps the Church presumes the faithful will in any case increase their devotions on a Friday. 

   The 1917 Code of Canon Law and the 1962 Roman Missal preserved the privileged status of the Four Times. Canon 1006 stated that without a serious reason to the contrary, men were to be ordained only on Ember Saturdays, Holy Saturday and the Saturday before Passion Sunday (episcopal consecration was reserved for Sundays and the feasts of apostles.) Canon 1252 required fasting and abstinence on all Ember ferias. The missal preserves the traditional Masses for the twelve Ember days, though a shorter form, permitted for most low Masses, is included for Saturdays.

   Did the post-conciliar reforms wholly abandon these venerable traditions? Not quite: Pope Paul VI, or it may be St Peter, did not permit it. True, modern canon law is silent about the Ember Days. But tucked away in an obscure corner of the 1970 missal is a reference to ‘the Four Times, in which the Church is accustomed to pray to our Lord for the various needs of men, especially for the fruits of the earth and human labours, and to give him public thanks’ (Normae Universales de Anno Liturgico, 45). The same words remain in the 3rd editio typica of this missal, published in 2002. However, the ‘adaptation’ of these days is left to Bishops’ Conferences: they can decide how many are to be observed, and when, and with what prayers. A couple of ‘fast days’ are duly marked on each year’s Ordo for the church in England and Wales, one in Lent and one in October, with the suggestion of celebrating a votive Mass of a suitable kind.

   Surely so ancient a tradition as the Ember Days must not be allowed to fade away. Where the Mass is celebrated in the usus antiquior, of course, they are still kept liturgically alive. And would it not be desirable for priests following the usus modernior to observe them in spirit by offering votive Masses for the fruits of the earth, or for vocations, or for the forgiveness of sins? Or if liturgical law forbids this, perhaps by celebrating a Holy Hour on the appropriate days? And naturally, all of us can treat them as special days for prayer and penance, allowing the rhythm of the natural world to lead us to its Creator. As St Leo said to the faithful in Rome: ‘From the very hinges on which the world turns, as if by four gospels, we learn unceasingly what to preach and what to do.’


Copyright ©; Fr. Thomas Crean O.P. 2010  



Version: 29th December 2010

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