From a reader:

Dear Fr. Z,
[Wednesday] is the beginning of the September Ember Days, and I am helping spread the word that this year, on the heels of the first anniversary of the motu proprio, we traditional Catholics should unite to pray and fast for the following intentions (see below). Not only will this be a sign of solidarity and a devotion that will, Deo volente, go some good, but it will "raise Ember awareness," so to speak, retrieving a beautiful but neglected facet of the traditional calendar.
FYI, I have an article on the Ember Days in the Fall issue of The Latin Mass Magazine that explains the history and meaning of this observance. I am attaching it for your perusal.
In any event, it would be great if you could post this "call to pray and fasting" on your website.
God’s blessings in all your wonderful work!

If memory serves, I think the newer Ordo mentions something about the custom of Ember Days, but it does so in such a vague way that no one might be prompted to do anything with it.

Let’s have a look at the article he sent me.   I removed some formatting to make it easier to post, but the content is clear enough.

My emphases and comments.

Call to Prayer and Fasting

This year, the Autumn Ember days are on September 24, 26, and 27. They follow the Feast of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14), the first anniversary that the motu proprio took effect. Let all traditional Catholics unite to observe the traditional Ember fast on these three days: 1) to pray for the Holy Father?s welfare, 2) to thank Almighty God for the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, and 3) to pray for its full implementation in every parish around the world.

The Glow of the Ember Days

By Michael P. Foley

A potential danger of traditionalism is the stubborn defense of something about which one knows little. I once asked a priest who had just finished beautifully celebrating an Ember Saturday Mass about the meaning of the Ember days. He replied (with an impish twinkle in his eye) that he hadn’t a clue, but he was furious they had been suppressed.  [Yah… that sounds about right.]

    Traditionalists, however, are not entirely to blame for their unfamiliarity with this important part of their patrimony. Most only have the privilege of assisting at a Sunday Tridentine Mass, and hence the Ember days—which occur on a weekday or Saturday—slip by unnoticed. And long before the opening session of the Second Vatican Council, the popularity of these observances had atrophied.

    So why care about them now? To answer this question, we must first determine what they are. [I have written about this in my columns for The Wanderer.]

The Four Seasons

The Ember days, which fall on a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the same week, occur in conjunction with the four natural seasons of the year. Autumn brings the September Embertide, also called the Michaelmas Embertide because of their proximity to the Feast of St. Michael on September 29.  Winter, on the other hand, brings the December Embertide during the third week of Advent, and spring brings the Lenten Embertide after the first Sunday of Lent. Finally, summer heralds the Whitsun Embertide, which takes place within the Octave of Pentecost.

In the 1962 Missal the Ember days are ranked as ferias of the second class, weekdays of special importance that even supersede certain saints’ feasts. Each day has its own proper Mass, all of which are quite old. One proof of their antiquity is that they are one of the few days in the Gregorian rite (as the ’62 Missal is now being called) which has as many as five lessons from the Old Testament in addition to the Epistle reading, an ancient arrangement indeed.
Fasting and partial abstinence during the Ember days were also enjoined on the faithful from time immemorial until the 1960s. It is the association of fasting and penance with the Embertides that led some to think that their peculiar name has something to do with smoldering ash, or embers. But the English name is probably derived from their Latin title, the Quatuor Tempora or “Four Seasons.” 

Apostolic and Universal

The history of the Ember days brings us to the very origins of Christianity. The Old Testament prescribes a fourfold fast as part of its ongoing consecration of the year to God (Zech. 8:19). In addition to these seasonal observances, pious Jews in Palestine at the time of Jesus fasted every Monday and Thursday—hence the Pharisee’s boast about fasting twice weekly in the parable involving him and the publican (Lk. 18:12).

Early Christians amended both of these customs. The Didache, a work so old that it may actually predate some books of the New Testament, tells us that Palestinian Christians in the first century A.D. fasted every Wednesday and Friday: Wednesday because it is the day that Christ was betrayed and Friday because it is the day He was crucified.  The Wednesday and Friday fast were so much a part of Christian life that in Gaelic one word for Thursday, Didaoirn, literally means “the day between the fasts.”

In the third century, Christians in Rome began to designate some of these days for seasonal prayer, partly in imitation of the Hebrew custom and partly in response to pagan festivals occurring around the same time.  Thus, the Ember days were born. And after the weekly fast became less prevalent, it was the Ember days which remained as a conspicuous testimony to a custom stretching back to the Apostles themselves.  Moreover, by modifying the two Jewish fasts, the Ember days embody Christ’s statement that He came not to abolish the Law but fulfill it (Mt. 5:17).

Usefully Natural

This fulfillment of the Law is crucial because it teaches us something fundamental about God, His redemptive plan for us, and the nature of the universe. In the case of both the Hebrew seasonal fasts and the Christian Ember days, we are invited to consider the wonder of the natural seasons and their relation to their Creator. The four seasons, for example, can be said to intimate individually the bliss of Heaven, where there is “the beauty of spring, the brightness of summer, the plenty of autumn, the rest of winter.”
This is significant, for the Ember days are the only time in the Church calendar where nature qua nature is singled out and acknowledged. Certainly the liturgical year as a whole presupposes nature’s annual rhythm (Easter coincides with the vernal equinox, Christmas with the winter solstice, etc.), yet here we celebrate not the natural phenomena per se but the supernatural mysteries which they evoke. The Rogation days commemorate nature, but mostly in light of its agricultural significance (that is, vis-à-vis its cultivation by man), not on its own terms, so to speak. 

The Ember days, then, stand out as the only days in the supernatural seasons of the Church that commemorate the natural seasons of the earth. This is appropriate, for since the liturgical year annually renews our initiation into the mystery of redemption, it should have some special mention of the very thing which grace perfects.
Uniquely Roman

But what about Saturday? The Roman appropriation of the weekly fast involved adding Saturday as an extension of the Friday fast. And during Embertide, a special Mass and procession to St. Peter’s was held, with the congregation being invited to “keep vigil with Peter.” Saturday is an appropriate day not only for a vigil, but as a day of penance, when our Lord “lay in the sepulchre, and the Apostles were sore of heart and in great sorrow.”  It is this Roman custom, incidentally, which gave rise to the proverb, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” According to the story, when Sts. Augustine and Monica asked St. Ambrose of Milan whether they should follow the weekly fasts of either Rome or of Milan (which did not include Saturdays), Ambrose replied: “When I am here, I do not fast on Saturday; when I am in Rome, I do.”

Solidarity of Laity and Clergy

Another Roman custom, instituted by Pope Gelasius I in 494, is to use Ember Saturdays as the day to confer Holy Orders. Apostolic tradition prescribed that ordinations be preceded by fast and prayer (see Acts 13:3), and so it was quite reasonable to place ordinations at the end of this fast period. This allows the entire community to join the candidates in fasting and in praying for God’s blessing upon their vocation, and not just the community in this or that diocese, but all over the world.

Personally Prayerful

In addition to commemorating the seasons of nature, each of the four Embertides takes on the character of the liturgical season in which it is located. The Advent Ember days, for example, celebrate the Annunciation and the Visitation, the only times during Advent in the 1962 Missal when this is explicitly done. The Lenten Embertide allows us to link the season of spring, when the seed must die to produce new life, to the Lenten mortification of our flesh. The Whitsun Embertides, curiously, have us fasting within the octave of Pentecost, teaching us that there is such a thing as a “joyful fast.”  The Fall Embertide is the only time that the Roman calendar echoes the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement, the two holidays that teach us so much about our earthly pilgrimage and about Christ’s high priesthood.  
The Ember days also afford the occasion for a quarterly check-up of the soul. Blessed Jacopo de Voragine (d. 1298) lists eight reasons why we should fast during the Ember days, most of them concerning our personal war against vice. Summer, for example, which is hot and dry, is analogous to “the burning and ardour of avarice,” while autumn is cold and dry, like pride. Jacopo also does a delightful job coordinating the Embertides with the four temperaments: springtime is sanguine, summer is choleric, autumn is melancholic, and winter is phlegmatic.  It is little wonder that the Ember days became times of spiritual exercises (not unlike our modern retreats), and that folklore in Europe grew up around them affirming their special character. 

    Even the Far East was affected by the Ember days. In the sixteenth century, when Spanish and Portuguese missionaries settled in Nagasaki, Japan, they sought ways of making tasty meatless meals for Embertide and started deep-frying shrimp. The idea caught on with the Japanese, who applied the process to a number of different sea foods and vegetables. They called this delicious food—have you guessed it yet?—“tempura,” again from Quatuor Tempora[Very cool!]

Dying Embers

    While the Ember days remained fixed in the universal calendar as obligatory (along with the injunction to fast), their radiating influence on other areas of life eventually waned. By the twentieth century, ordinations were no longer exclusively scheduled on Ember Saturdays and their role as “spiritual checkups” was gradually forgotten. The writings of Vatican II could have done much to rejuvenate the Ember days. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy decrees that liturgical elements “which have suffered injury through accidents of history are now to be restored to the vigor which they had in the days of the holy Fathers” (50).

    But what came instead was the Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship’s 1969 General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, where we read:
On rogation and ember days the practice of the Church is to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labor, and to give him public thanks (45).

In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions…the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan for their celebration (46)[Yah… that happened…. right?]

    Happily, the Ember days were not to be removed from the calendar but tweaked by national bishops’ conferences. There were, however, several shortcomings with this arrangement. First, the SCDW treats Rogation and Ember days as synonymous, which—as we saw in a previous article —they are not. The Ember days do not, for example, pray for “the productivity of the earth and for human labor” in the dead of winter.

Second, by calling for an adaptation to various regions, the SCDW allowed the Ember days to take on an indeterminate number of meanings that have nothing to do with nature, such as “peace, the unity of the Church, the spread of the faith, etc.”  Unlike the organic development of the Ember days, which preserved its basic meaning while taking on others, the 1969 directive has no safeguards to keep newly assigned meanings from displacing the Embertides’ more fundamental purpose.

Third, the national bishops’ conferences were supposed to fix the dates of the Ember days, but none, as far as I can tell, ever did.

Dead Embers & Lively Debates

In the wake of this ambiguity and indirection, the Ember days disappeared from the celebration of the Novus Ordo, and at one of the worst possible times. For just as the Church was letting its liturgical celebration of the natural slip into oblivion, the West was going berserk over nature[Good point.  The Ember Days could fulfill a function in a developing theology of ecology/environment.]

Ever since the publication of Machiavelli’s Prince in the sixteenth century, modern society has been predicated on a technological war against nature in order to increase man’s dominion and power. Nature was no longer a lady to be wooed (as she had been for the Greeks, Romans, and medieval Christians); she was now to be raped, beaten into submission through evermore impressive technological advances  that would render mankind, in Freud’s chilling words, “a prosthetic god.”

While there were some strong reactions against this new attitude, the modern hostility to the God-given only expanded as time went on, growing from a war on nature to a war on human nature. Our current preoccupations with genetic engineering, sex “changes,” and same-sex “marriage”—all of which are attempts to redefine or reconfigure the natural—are examples of this ongoing escalation.

The environmental movement that began in the 1960s has helped bring to light the wages of ruthlessly exploiting nature, and thus today we have a renewed appreciation for the virtues of responsible stewardship and for the marvels of God’s green but fragile earth. Yet this same movement, which has served in many ways as a healthy reawakening, is peppered with absurdities. Often the same activists who defend endangered tadpoles go on to champion the annihilation of unborn babies. Recently, after liberalizing their abortion laws, Spain’s socialist government introduced legislation to grant chimpanzees legal rights in order “to preserve the species from extinction”—this in a land with no native ape population.

Contemporary environmentalism is also sometimes pantheistic in its assumptions, the result being that for many it has become a religion unto itself. This new religion comes complete with its own priests (climatologists), its own gospels (sacrosanct data about rising temperatures and shrinking glaciers), its own prophets (Al Gore, who unfortunately remains welcome in his own country), and, most of all, its own apocalypticism, with the four horsemen of deforestation, global warming, ozone depletion, and fossil fuels all leading us to an ecological Doomsday more terrifying to the secular mind than the Four Last Things.


My point is not to deny the validity of these anxieties, but to lament the neo-pagan framework into which they are more often than not put. Modern man is such a mess that when he finally recovers a love of nature, he does so in a most unnatural manner. Both the early modern antipathy to nature and the late modern idolatry of it stand in dire need of correction, a correction that the Church is well poised to provide. As Chesterton quipped, Christians can truly love nature because they will not worship her. The Church proclaims nature’s goodness because it was created by a good and loving God and because it sacramentally reflects the grandeur of God’s goodness and love
The Church does this liturgically with its observance of the “Four Seasons,” the Embertides. Celebrating the Ember days does not, of course, provide ready solutions to the world’s complicated ecological difficulties, but it is a good refresher course in basic first principles. The Ember days offer an intelligent alternative to pantheist environmentalism, and they do so without being contrived or pandering, as a new Catholic “Earth Day” or some such thing would undoubtedly be.

It is a shame that the Church unwittingly let the glow of Embertide die at the precise moment in history when their witness was needed the most, but it is a great boon that Summorum Pontificum makes their celebration universally accessible once again. What remains is for a new generation to take up their practice with a reinvigorated appreciation of what they mean. At least then we’ll know why we are so furious.

Call to Prayer and Fasting

This year, the Autumn Ember days are on September 24, 26, and 27. They follow the Feast of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14), the first anniversary that the motu proprio took effect. Let all traditional Catholics unite to observe the traditional Ember fast on these three days: 1) to pray for the Holy Father’s welfare, 2) to thank Almighty God for the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, and 3) to pray for its full implementation in every parish around the world.

Michael P. Foley is an associate professor of patristics at Baylor University. He is the author of Wedding Rites: A Complete Guide to Traditional Music, Vows, Ceremonies, Blessings, and Interfaith Services (Eerdmans) and Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything (Palgrave Macmillan).

A good article in many respects.

We need a revival of these observances.  This is definitely a way in which the older form of Mass, with its calendar, can influence the post-Conciliar calendar.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Cristero says:

    Dear Fr. Z:

    Thank you for posting about the Ember Days. The San Juan Bautista Latin Mass Community
    has tried to bring awareness to the Faithful about the Ember Days as a way to recover
    our Catholic identity. Brick by Brick, Deo volente, we will bring back our Traditions as
    ancestors had practiced them.


  2. Cristero says:

    Dear Fr. Z:

    Thank you for posting about the Ember Days. The San Juan Bautista Latin Mass Community
    has tried to bring awareness to the Faithful about the Ember Days as a way to recover
    our Catholic identity. Brick by Brick, Deo volente, we will bring back our Traditions as
    our ancestors had practiced them.


    Sorry about that. I forgot a word.

  3. Robert says:

    I don’t understand: if the fall ember days are the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after Exaltation of the Cross (Sep 14), then they should have been last week, Sept 17, 19 and 20. Which is what I see on online traditional calendars. Can someone explain this discrepancy?

  4. Robert says:

    It turns out there was a discussion of the timing of these Ember days on Fisheaters

    It has to do with a change in the rubrics for calculating the Sundays in September, which occurred in 1960.

    So, now I understand.

  5. Paul S. says:

    Dear Father,

    What does the Liturgical Calendar really say?

    Wikipedia indicates that 1969 changes moved the September Ember Week to the first full week following the Exaltation of the Cross, which is consistent with the timing offered by your correspondent.
    The footnote on the fish-eaters page suggests the same:

    However, Catholic Encyclopedia entry for “Ember Days” makes no mention of “Ember Week” timing but rather suggests the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday immediately following September 14th:

    Similarly, as Robert notes, online traditional calendars show the Ember Days as having occurred last week:

    If the E.F. is still allowed its liturgical calendar – “where every week is extraordinary rather than ordinary time” :) – does the ‘traditional’ timing of the Ember Days still apply to those who adhere to the E.F.?

    FWIW, today is a good day for fasting in any case, as many communities are kicking off 40 days of prayer and fasting in advance of the November elections:

  6. Charivari Rob says:

    Might the dates also have something to do with the date of the Equinox (or Solstice, appropriate to the season)? Or is it just incidental?

    This year, the September Ember days all come after the Atumnal Equinox. I think it is possible for them to come all before the Equinox (certainly they can bridge the Equinox).

  7. Rubricarius says:

    The difference in dates between the traditional calendar and the John XXIII Breviary arises due to the way Sundays (in the sense of mattins) are computed. Before 1961 the first Sunday of August, September, October and November was the one closest to the Kalends of the month. This year meant the first Sunday of September (with the beginning of the book of Job) on August 31. The reading of scripture is maximised so the books of Job, Tobias, Judith and Esther (part of) are read during the month. In the 1962 breviary the first Sunday was not until the 7th which results in the displacement of Ember Days and the omission of any of the readings from Esther. I have posted some details on my blog.

  8. Ken says:

    Father Z, thank you for joining the chorus of supporters of the Ember Days. Although a traditional Latin Mass is rare on Wednesdays, this Friday and Saturday each present opportunities for the faithful to hear the ancient Ember Friday and Ember Saturday Masses. (Be warned: Ember Saturday is LONG!) We should urge priests to say these Masses — and get friends to show up.

    Was it a coincidence that when the Ember Days, which are traditionally the 12 days of the year when we pray for vocations, were virtually scrapped by Paul VI that vocations tanked?

    Now is our chance to reverse that trend. Thanks to the priests saying traditional Ember Day Masses this week. May there be many more.

  9. Brian Mershon says:

    Well, I thought I missed Ember Wed. next week, but now I know I have a day of partial fast and abstinence today.

    Another week for an opportunity to practice them. Imagine if Catholics worldwide offered their fasts and abstinences todgether simultaneously four times a year during ember days, instead of just two days per year now required.

    Wonder if God would grace that?

    Naw… Too difficult for all of us these days. Don’t want to build up the kingdom or build Catholic culture.

    Aside from the changes to the Holy Mass and other sacraments–esp. the ordination rite and consecration of bishops–the destruction of the liturgical calendar is the single most damaging result of the Bugnini-led (approved by Pope Paul VI of course) post-Conciliar debacle.

  10. Jeff says:

    Ember Days are discussed in the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar issued on February 14, 1969:

    VII. Rogation and Ember Days
    45. On rogation and ember days the practice of the Church is to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labor, and to give him public thanks.

    46. In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the people, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan for their celebration.

    Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year.

    47. On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occassions that is best suited for the intentions of the petitioners.

    The U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy has responded to this invitation in Part III of the revised (2007) edition of Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers (Rogation Days, pp. 142 ff.; Ember Days, pp. 164 ff.). http://www.usccbpublishing.org/productdetails.cfm?sku=5-645

  11. Kim D'Souza says:

    Today begins the 40 Days for Life campaign (http://www.40daysforlife.com/about.cfm). Marking the Ember days is an apt way to begin this period of pro-life prayer and penance.

  12. Brian Mershon says:


    So you’re saying the USCCB’s response to the 1969 norms with a book of blessings, which blessed nothing? That is the response?

    See Daniel G. Van Slyke’s analyis of that here.


    (Don’t be fooled by the title. It is much more than just about the non-Holy Holy water.)

    Sorry, Jeff. No dice. Most traditional Catholics don’t even know about rogation and ember days, let alone the average Catholic in the pew of a “modern” Novus Ordo parish. I dare to day that most priests and bishops do not as well. It is not in the liturgical calendar and since the USCCB refused to “pass on what it was given” by their predecessors, just like the Canon Law requirement to have Friday as a penitential day, it is lost. More than 99.999 percent of Catholic laymen, priests and bishops know NOTHING about rogation days nor ember days. And as was stated above, they are not the same thing.

    Sorry, you might be well intentioned, but the new “book of blessings,” which actually bless nothing, do not substitute for fast and abstinence.

    No dice.

  13. Jordanes says:

    Yes, Brian, that’s pretty much what I was thinking. A book of “household” blessings is all the USCCB has for Rogation Days and Ember Days? Those are a matter of the liturgical calendar, not private household devotions (commendable as those are), so there should be readings for them in the Lectionary and Masses for them in the Missal – and not hidden in an appendix either, but inserted right into the natural flow of the year, the way the pre-Vatican II hand missals show them.

    This is just one more example of how the liturgical reform was utterly botched after Vatican II.

  14. Mitch says:

    Is there any list of appropriate prayers and readings to do on each of the ember days for the OF Mass? If there isnt, could a local Ordinary proscribe, for his diocese, sets of prayers and readings for these Masses based on the EF prayers and readings?

    I know that the University Ministry at my school wants to bring focus to the enviroment from a Catholic perspective. This would be a good way to do it if only there were OF prayers and readings set up for this day already.

  15. KristenB says:

    I had no idea about Ember days. I wish I had, or I would have made an effort to go to Mass this week.

    As a young Catholic, and as I learn more about the wealth of information within the Church, I feel as if I was shortchanged. At the same time, I cannot help but think that because I have to learn about these amazing practices, I appreciate these holidays and traditions more than I would have if I was just given them.

    All of this is just a testament to good solid catechesis.

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