On August 18th, Madison, Wisconsin Bishop Robert Morlino wrote a powerful letter decrying “all the sins of sexual depravity committed by members of the clergy and episcopacy.” He pledged to offer a public Mass of Reparation, which was held on September 14th. He also said he would be keeping the traditional Ember Days fasts near the end of September (starting Wednesday, September 19th), and invited the Catholic faithful in his diocese to do the same.
If you heard about this, you probably thought: Ember what? Even though I’m working on a book on fasting, I first learned about these fasts only a few months ago.
What Are They?
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.
These fasts were so common by the thirteenth century that when St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about fasting in his Summa Theologica, he mentioned two fasts: Lent and Ember Days.
Think of these as seasonal reboots of your spiritual life. They are fixed times set aside to pray, thank God for His abundant blessings, identify with Christ’s suffering, help the needy, and renew the spirit of repentance from sin. Emphasis on “should.” Because we are all fallen, we tend to grow lax in doing the things we ought to do every day. That’s why it helps to have special, scheduled times to awaken us from our sloth and boredom.
Where Did They Go?
So, what happened to Ember Days?
As you might have guessed, they were a casualty of the 1960s. The bishops of the Second Vatican Council retained them, but thought there should be more flexibility. After all, seasons varied in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. In Argentina, for instance, Christmas comes at the beginning of their summer! Surely fasts fixed to earthly seasons should take account of this local diversity.
In light of this, Pope Paul VI handed the scheduling of Ember Days over to national bishops conferences, who, for the most part, dropped the ball. The US bishops never got around to picking dates, which had the effect of causing the fasts to go the way of rotary dial phones.
Some older die-hards still keep these fasts in their private lives. Most of those who came of age after the 1960s have never even heard of them.
Until now. The current crisis in the Church has many Catholics searching for solutions. It’s obvious that we’ve lost our way. There’s an overwhelming sense that in a desire to be hip and modern, too many — especially many in the Church hierarchy — have abandoned truths and practices that, if anything, we should be doubling down on.
Bishop Morlino has the right impulse. Rather than counsel despair, he’s calling the faithful back to a long-standing practice that was only recently abandoned — and abandoned about the time things really started to go off the rails. I’m not sure that’s a coincidence.
Morlino is not the only one. Over the last few weeks, there has been quite a lot of talk about these fasts among Catholics. I’ve been planning to write a piece about these fasts for the last couple of months. And while I was working on this piece, my friend (and Stream contributor) Austin Ruse sent me and several other Catholic writers an email, asking us to join him in keeping the Ember Days.
Calling all Catholic men. This week live the Ember Days. Fast and abstain on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday for the sins of our fellow Catholics, for our own sins, and to revive an old custom that never should have been dropped in the first place.
— Austin Ruse (@austinruse) September 17, 2018
Great minds think alike and all that.
Try It. It’s Not that Hard.
The Ember Days are three days of fasting, only two of which are consecutive. Catholics universally abstained from meat on Friday until, well, the 1960s. And for many decades, they fasted on Wednesday and Friday. The Ember Days just add one day, Saturday, to what used to be a weekly custom. This fall they are Wednesday, September 19, Friday, September 21, and Saturday, September 22.
Don’t worry. The fasts are really abstinences. You’re not expected to give up food all day — or even to eat fewer meals. To follow the pre-1960s custom, you just need to eat less than you normally would for two meals, while giving up meat (the flesh of land animals) that would otherwise leave you feeling satisfied. You still get to eat one normal-sized meal with meat. Only on Friday would you abstain from all land animal meat and eat only fish.
Honestly, given our current crisis in the Church, this seems a bit effeminate to me. If you want to do more, try eating only one meal a day on the Ember Days. You still won’t have to go all day without eating (baby steps), but you’ll spend most of the time during those days in a fasted state.
We do know that God wants us to fast and pray. Who knows what might happen if millions of faithful laity and clergy decided to do this for three days, four times a year? What if Christians from every tradition suddenly took up the practice and prayed in unison? What would happen if we channeled our extra time and hunger into fervent prayers to the Lord to renew His Church and to deliver us from evil?
We’ll never know unless we try.
This article has been edited since the original publication to fix the dates of the fast.