Ember Days

A reminder to my Catholic brethren:

Today, Friday, and Saturday are all Ember days. This means on Wednesday and Saturday, we observe partial fast and abstinence – two small meatless meals, and one full meal that can include meat.

On Friday, we may take two small meals and one full meal, but observe total abstinence even at the main meal. This is identical to the currently observed fasts of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Also worth noting: Christmas Eve is traditionally a day of fast and total abstinence as well.

The ever informative Fisheaters website has more to say:

Yes, despite the typical, unimaginative view of Winter as a long bout with misery, the season is among the most beautiful and filled with charms. The ephemeral beauty of a single snowflake… the pale blue tint of sky reflected in snow that glitters, and gives way with a satisfying crunch under foot… skeletal trees entombed in crystal, white as bones, cold as death, creaking under the weight of their icy shrouds… the wonderful feeling of being inside, next to a fire, while the winds whirl outside… the smell of burning wood mingled with evergreen… warm hands embracing your wind-bitten ones… the brilliant colors of certain winter birds, so shocking against the ocean of white… the wonderfully long nights which lend themselves to a sense of intimacy and quiet! Go outside and look at the clear Winter skies ruled by Taurus, with the Pleiades on its shoulder and Orion nearby… Such beauty!

Some fantastic imagery, to be sure. But it still leaves us with the question: what is an ember day? 

Four times a year, the Church sets aside three days to focus on God through His marvelous creation. These quarterly periods take place around the beginnings of the four natural seasons 1 that “like some virgins dancing in a circle, succeed one another with the happiest harmony,” as St. John Chrysostom wrote (see Readings below).

These four times are each kept on a successive Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and are known as “Ember Days,” or Quatuor Tempora, in Latin. The first of these four times comes in Winter, after the the Feast of St. Lucy; the second comes in Spring, the week after Ash Wednesday; the third comes in Summer, after Pentecost Sunday; and the last comes in Autumn, after Holy Cross Day. Their dates can be remembered by this old mnemonic:

Sant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angaria quarta sequens feria.

Which means:

Holy Cross, Lucy, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost,
are when the quarter holidays follow.

For non-Latinists, it might be easier to just remember “Lucy, Ashes, Dove, and Cross.”

These times are spent fasting and partially abstaining (voluntary since the new Code of Canon Law) in penance and with the intentions of thanking God for the gifts He gives us in nature and beseeching Him for the discipline to use them in moderation. The fasts, known as “Jejunia quatuor temporum,” or “the fast of the four seasons,” are rooted in Old Testament practices of fasting four times a year:

Zacharias 8:19:
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 Juda, joy, and gladness, and great solemnities: only love ye truth and peace.