Ember Days of Advent
Louis J. Tofari
The third week of Advent features the Ember Days of this penitential season, that is, Ember Wednesday, Ember Friday and Ember Saturday. The word “Ember” is the Middle English equivalent of the Latin term "Quatuor Tempora", meaning the "four times" or "four seasons" of the year. Thus there are four sets of penitential Ember Days to match the four seasons of the year, which correspond both to ancient Jewish and Roman religious practices.
As described by the Prophet Zacharias, in the Synagogue observance the Jews would fast during the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months of the year “to consecrate to God by penance the four seasons of the year”.
The pagan Romans similarly dedicated the four harvest seasons to their deities, the first of which was in December when the seeds were planted and thus called “feriae sementivae”. This latter observance also coincided with the winter solstice.
The Catholic Church, always willing to Christianize wholesome practices, supernaturalized these ancient practices of observing the quarter seasons with the penitential and liturgical practices of the Ember Days. In particular, the Ember Days were a preparation for the conferring of holy orders (such as the diaconate and priesthood) which would take place during the Sunday vigil. This winter preparation for conferring holy orders was especially the case in Rome (where the Ember Days originated), which from its earliest days had held ordinations during the month of December.
This preparation for the ordination of the clergy contrasts admirably with the original intention of the religious observance of the harvest seasons, which was to offer a suppliant thanksgiving to Almighty God for His munificence through the fruits of nature. For through the formation and progression of the clergy through holy orders, the workers are appointed and prepared to go out into the Lord’s vineyard for the spiritual harvest of souls.
While today ordinations may not be usually held in the month of December—let alone on the vigil of the 4th Sunday of Advent—nonetheless, we can certainly apply another intention to the Ember Days of Advent, namely, to prepare with greater vigor for the coming of Our Savior at Christmas. And as usual, the two ways in which this preparation can be observed are by fasting and praying.
Traditionally, the Ember Days were days of complete fast and abstinence from meat—just like the famous “fish Fridays” of old. Of course, while such abstinence is no longer strictly required under the pain of mortal sin, nonetheless, this fasting practice is still highly recommended, particularly as it has been the universal practice of the Church from its earliest days—and of countless saints! Dom Gueranger further points out the importance of adhering to such fasting rules during the Ember Days of Advent:
We must never forget that although the interior preparation is what is absolutely essential for our profiting by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, yet this preparation could scarcely be real unless it manifested itself by the exterior practices of religion and penance.
As for praying during the Ember Days, the Roman Church admirably offers us through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass a different set of propers for each day. The first one of Wednesday is the famous Rorate Caeli Mass, so called from the first words of its Introit. In many places, it is the beautiful custom to celebrate this Mass solely by candlelight in the early, darkened morning. The candles not only recall our expectancy for the advent of the Light of the World, but perhaps even more so, the dawn—or rising sun—which signifies the coming of the Redemptive Savior.
An interesting feature of the Masses of Ember Days are the additional readings from sacred scripture (for a total of three on Wednesdays and seven on Saturdays), as well as the use of the “Flectamus genua” before the preliminary collects, and the presence of additional chants between the readings. Many of these practices are remnants of the more ancient practice of the Liturgy of the Catechumens in the Roman Mass. As for the readings, these are replete with the hopeful and confident tone for the eventual advent of Christ, while some make reference to the forthcoming bountiful harvest that God will bestow upon us—in particular, the blessings and graces to come from Christ’s Nativity.
Lastly, we should take note of the assigned Station Churches for each Ember Day and their significance:
On Ember Wednesday, the pope offered in ancient times the Rorate Caeli Mass—which minus the additional readings and chants is the votive Mass for Our Lady on Saturdays during Advent—in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, thus in the primary church of Rome dedicated to the Blessed Mother of God and furthermore, before the actual relics of the Holy Crib! So here our expectancy for the advent of the Messiah is further heightened.
On Ember Friday, the Mass (Prope es tu, Domine), was offered in the Minor Basilica of the Twelve Apostles. Here we can see an allusion to redoubling the Ember Days’ spiritual preparation for the ordinations that will be held the next day (Saturday). Thus we invoke the patronage of the Holy Apostles (who were called—vocare—and sent—missio—by Christ to spread the Gospel throughout the world for the salvation of souls) upon those who likewise have responded to their vocation and are being given the same mission as ministers of Christ.
On Ember Saturday, the Mass (Veni, et ostende) was offered in none other than St. Peter’s Basilica. Here in particular, we refer to the ancient basilica built on the Vatican Hill by Emperor Constantine, which was one of the largest churches in Christendom and thus large enough to accommodate the large Roman crowds that would attend the ordinations held from Saturday night until Sunday morning.
1 The other three Ember Days occur in Lent after Ash Wednesday (Spring), during the Pentecost Octave (Summer) and in September (Autumn) after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
2 Cited from Dom Gueranger, The Liturgical Year.
3 It should be noted that the Advent Ember Days were finally prescribed for the entire Latin Church by Pope Gregory VII (+1085) in the 11th century, and they were to be held on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after December 13th (the feast of St. Lucy).
4 I.e., the ceremonies and Mass would start late on (Ember) Saturday night and the Mass would conclude by Sunday morning—as is done today for the Easter Vigil ceremonies and Mass.
5 Per the 1983 Code of Canon Law. For the traditional observance of fasting and abstinence per the rules of the 1962 Missale Romanum, see the Angelus Press liturgical calendars.
6 Again from The Liturgical Year.
7 Read more about the mystical use of lights in Candles of the Roman Rite.