ASK FATHER: What should we do for Ember Days?

Some (enlightened) bishops have asked the faithful in their dioceses to observe the traditional Ember Days as times of penance in reparation for sins.

From a reader…


Dear Fr Z, I wish you would do a “how to” post on fasting for Ember Days and other occasions. Does it literally mean not eating all day? I have seen some directives that recommend two small meals and one regular one, but that hardly seems like a sacrifice at all. Or should we aim to give up our favorite indulgence as during Lent? (Don’t take away my coffee!)

Maybe it’s the coffee that you should give up.

Before the reforms which were not called for by the Second Vatican Council were instituted, on Ember Days Roman Catholics were to fast (only one full meal per day plus two partial meals).  That meant that on each of the Ember Fridays, there was both fasting and abstinence from meat).   Moreover, people were encouraged to go to confession during the Ember Days.

You can, prudently, do more.

BTW… in ancient times, when there were many more days of fasting and abstinence, people would donate the money they would have spent on food to the poor.  Even St. Leo the Great (+461) talks about that.

In 1966, came the near-disaster of Paul VI’s decree Paenitemini which revamped the entire practice of fasting and abstinence for Roman Catholics.  Among the near-disasters was the exclusion of Ember Days as penitential days.  Of course, left to themselves, with the Church’s law and without sound preaching, people simply stopped doing penance on Fridays.

When the Novus Ordo was issued in 1969, there was a squishy remnant of the Ember Days left as a vague option that conferences of bishops could use.  Or course, they did nothing.

Now, however, some people are waking up to traditional uses and devotions.

I would also recommend a return to the practice of Forty Hours Devotion throughout entire dioceses.  Forty Hours is not a long Corpus Christi or Holy Thursday.  Forty Hours is a devotion during which we pray to God to avert disasters, invasions, famine, disease, etc., or to beg for certain advantages for the community.

BRICK BY BRICK, my readers.  Brick by brick!


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. L. says:

    Not too many years ago I was told authoritatively by a Monsignor in confession that there is no obligation to do or not do anything on Fridays, except during lent. He said something like, “We used to believe that but don’t any more.” So, there is even more squishiness. I am hopeful, but not all that hopeful, that our new Apostolic Administrator from Ballmer and our eventual new Bishop can right the ship, but doing so will be tough. Reinstituting the observance of Ember Days will be far down the list of priorities, I think.

  2. Longinus says:

    It would be helpful to know on which days the Winter 2018 and Spring 2019 will fall so that we can put them on our calendars now.

  3. WmHesch says:

    The Ember Days are essentially “vigils” for the natural seasons. The neo-Bishops asking the faithful to observe them in response the current crisis betrays their own ignorance of the days’ traditional purpose.

    [Ummmm…. you might want to do your own review.]

  4. Greg Hlatky says:

    I can only speak personally to the question, but I am not smart enough to know how much constitutes a “partial meal.” So, for me, fasting means one meal which is normal for whatever time of day I eat it. Otherwise, only water; no coffee, no soda. I find there are two advantages. One, it is clear cut. Two, it is easier on me than eating something small and being hungrier as a result. The problem is that seafood here on the Gulf Coast is delicious!

    Nothing from our archdiocese on observing the Ember Days. Our pastor (FSSP) notes Ember Weeks in the bulletin and has recommended to his parishioners fasting and abstinence on Fridays and the Leonine Prayers daily for the current crisis in the Church.

  5. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I highly recommend that people look up one of the many versions of “Tarte in Ymber Day,” a reasonably filling egg and onion pie that is found in many medieval cookbooks. (You can also cook it in a pie dish without the crust, if you need something gluten-free.)

    The beauty of the dish is that you can easily add or subtract ingredients to taste. I’ve never made it with saffron or currants; and since I’m cooking for myself, I just substitute Chinese five spice for “powdre douce” (which isn’t that far off). It is very good with cheese in. I’ve also seen it done as a egg-mushroom or cheese-mushroom tart instead of an egg-onion one.

    (But yes, on medieval Ember Days, you could use eggs and dairy, which was not the case in Lent.)

  6. Shonkin says:

    The Spring Ember Days were always redundant, since they fell during Lent almost every year. Fast days during Lent? We had those anyway.
    I always wondered why they were called Ember Days. Something to do with fire? I finally looked it up. It’s an English corruption of the Latin “tempora.” That’s something else they never told us in Catholic school.
    And how about the Rogation days?

  7. Julia_Augusta says:

    Apart from the rule “eat one full meal but the other two meals should not add up to one meal”, what you eat when you fast during Ember Days should be tailored according to your own body. The first time I began fasting, I continued to exercise vigorously. This turned out to be a big mistake because I almost fainted. Indeed, during fasting days, I take it easy: pray a lot, read spiritual books, and meditate. I like walking meditation while saying the Rosary. The second thing to remember is, for the 2 small meals, eat something that gives you energy. People told me to eat fruit and nuts, and this worked well for me. But it may not for you.

    Giving up something you love – and cannot do without on a normal day, such as coffee and wine – is also a very good idea. I don’t eat much anyway and I don’t eat meat most of the time, simply because I love fish and vegetables. I can actually survive eating only one meal a day and two tiny meals, so fasting for me is not so difficult. But giving up my glass of red wine in the evening . . . very hard. So that’s what I give up. Coffee is also painful to give up, so no coffee in the morning, just a cup of chamomile tea.

    I found that fasting often makes fasting easier. I lost several pounds too, but I have to make sure I don’t overdo it because I am already quite thin. The tendency towards vanity is strong when I fast because I lose weight and I find I look so much better and then I start becoming obsessed with my appearance. I have to remind myself that the goal of fasting is not to have the figure of a super model and to go out in tight jeans.

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Re: “tempora,” Japanese tempura is another traditional Catholic food for Ember Days. (It derived from a Portuguese dish.)

    Re: redundancy, Advent was also a season of fasting. Heck, so were large parts of all four seasons, and some/most early Christians fasted or abstained a little on every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, back when the days were instituted. Fasting and abstinence (and alms and prayer) are the parts that laypeople do; but they aren’t the whole schmole.

    The liturgies of the Ember Days have their own purposes. In the medieval Sarum Missal, for example, they ask God’s blessings to renew the earth, and to renew the hearts of the members of the Church on earth, strengthening them against evil. (Comparing humans to the earth goes back to the story of Adam’s name.) Laypeople respond by offering prayers, alms, fasting, acts of reparation, etc., and thus doing their part to help renew the Church and the earth. Doing this in every season is thoroughness.

  9. FN says:

    This is wonderful information! I think I’ll try Greg’s approach of one meal a day (perhaps of tempura!) as I only eat two normally. And replace coffee with herb tea! That makes it hard enough to be meaningful but still prudent.

  10. Shonkin says:

    There are many ways to obey the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit. For example, the fasting rules only apply to solid foods. In Bavaria during Lent, Starkbier has traditionally been popular. It has very high food content but is completely liquid and therefore permissible.
    The purpose of the fast is not to starve yourself; it’s to be a bit hungry and eat just enough to maintain health and your ability to carry on your everyday activities. Loading up on Bavarian liquid bread (fluessiges Brot) is a mockery of the fast, but giving up a healthy exercise regimen is also not in the spirit of the fast. If you are on the verge of passing out, you are overdoing the fast.

  11. Semper Gumby says:

    Helpful Quaeritur. Amen to Forty Hours Devotion and Leonine Prayers.

    Suburbanbanshee: Thanks for going medieval with your comments, interesting.

    From NLM, “By Nothing but Prayer and Fasting,” which also references Fr. Z’s 16 Sep. WDTPRS post:

    “The General Instruction of the Roman Missal contains an exhortation (and no more than that) to the effect that Rogation Days and Ember Days “should be indicated” (“indicentur”, not “indicandae sunt – must be indicated”) on the local calendars, and a rubric (I.45) that it is the duty (“oportet”) of episcopal conferences to establish both the time and manner of their celebration. Unsurprisingly, this rubric has mostly been ignored. In recent days, however, it has become impossible to ignore the hideous consequences of the almost total abandonment of any kind of ascetic discipline in the life of the Church, and the free reign which this seems to have given to the devil. As a result, some bishops have called for the faithful to fast on the Ember Days this year, among them Robert Morlino of Madison and David Zubik of Pittsburgh, along with a number of Catholic commentators. If the Church does not wish this annus horribilis to become a lasting feature of its life, a permanent and universal restoration of the traditional discipline of fasting, including the Ember Days, would be a small but important step in that direction.”

    From The Stream “It’s Time to Recover an Ancient Fast” with references to Bp. Morlino- the Extraordinary Ordinary:

    “Ember Days were communal fasts that Christians held four times a year at the beginning of the four seasons. “Ember” doesn’t refer to burning coals — though that image seems especially apt these days. It’s from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, meaning a circle or revolution; which may itself be a corruption of the Latin phrase quatuor tempora, meaning “four times.”

    “We don’t know just when these fasts started. The prophet Zechariah does mention four fasts and feasts (Zechariah 8:1), but that’s at best a hint. We do know this: Already by the fourth century Christians in Rome were keeping Ember Days. It was only in the eleventh century, though, that Pope Gregory VII fixed the dates in the liturgical calendar.”


    While we’re at it, if I could add here an expansion to last week’s hurricane topic.

    Here’s a link to Fr. Z’s post on the Rituale Romanum and Tempests:

    The 1962 Roman Missal (for the Traditional Latin Mass and published by Baronius or Angelus) has on page 1612 (Baronius): “To Avert Storms.”

    Certainly, space and weight in one’s pack is important, but no doubt Chesty Puller would approve of a 1962 missal. The second half of this article explains why the Episcopalian Chesty Puller preferred Catholic chaplains and sent his children to Catholic schools:

    Also, Fr. Capodanno:

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