Throughout the year in the Western Church, Ember Days are four quarterly groups of three days within one week (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday), set aside specifically for prayer and fasting.
The Ember Weeks are as follows:
- Between the 3rd and 4th Sundays of Advent
- Between the 1st and 2nd Sundays of Lent
- Between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday
- Week beginning the Sunday after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14th)
The term is a corruption of the German Quatember, derived from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren (a circuit or revolution, from ymb, around, and ryne, a course running), relating to the annual cycle of the year. In Latin, it is rendered quattuor anni tempora (four seasons of the year) or jejunia quattuor temporum (fasts of the four seasons), in Irish Gaelic as Laethanta na gCeithre Thráth (days of the four times), and in Welsh as Wythnos y Cydgorian (Week of the Processions).
The most accepted origin is the early Church’s practice of assigning a holy purpose to Roman or Celtic pagan holidays, in this case calendar and harvest festivals. The earliest known mention is in the writings of Philastrius, Bishop of Brescia (died c. 387), Pope St. Leo the Great (A.D. 440 – 461, who wanted to bring the grace and discipline of abstinence from meat to every season of the year), and Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604, who is believed to have fixed the timing). The current schedule was established by Pope Blessed Urban II at the Councils of Piacenza and Clermont, 1095, and can be remembered by this clever mnemonic device in Latin:
Dant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angariâ quarta sequens feria
or in old English:
Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie
[Lent, Pentecost, the Holy Cross, and St. Lucy]
The Ember Days began on the Wednesday immediately following those feast days.
The Church originally mandated fasting (only one full meal per day, plus two small meatless meals) on all Ember Days, and the faithful were encouraged (but not required) to receive the Sacrament of Penance. On February 17, 1966, Pope Paul VI’s decree Paenitemini excluded the Ember Days as days of fast and abstinence, and their observance now is up to the discretion of the local bishops conference. Pope St. Gelasius I (492-496) is credited with associating the Ordination of clergy to Ember Weeks.
Esther 4:16 (Esther fasted three days without food or water)
II Samuel 12:16-18 (David fasted seven days without food)
Isaiah 58 (what is a proper fast before God)
Matthew 17:21 (prayer and fasting are linked)
Acts 9:9 (Paul fasted three days)
II Corinthians 11:27 (Paul fasted often)