With the Church in Crisis, Let’s Recover the Ember Days Fasts

By Jay Richards Published on September 18, 2018

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.

Ember Days Image

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.

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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.



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.

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  • Cody

    Mass of reparations will not help anything, only admitting your wrong doings and true repentance of your sin will help and bring forgiveness. And a priest can not forgive your sins. As for recovery the number one best thing you could do is leave that false religion.

    • erin

      That’s funny. I seem to remember Christ telling the apostles, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained” . . .
      Keep digging into our “falsehoods”, Cody. We’ll be ready to welcome you when you are ready to enter. Blessings.

      • Patmos

        It’s weird how so many Catholics cling to the notion that they and they alone are in authority, when it is ABUNDANTLY clear that their organization is in complete disarray. The blindness is truly stunning.

        • The Church is the One True Faith and the only way to get to Heaven. The Chuch is also eternal, indefectible, and indivisible.

          The authority you arrogate to yourself is not valid as your ego is not a valid foundation. No matter how hard you sneer and blamspheme, it will not legitimize what you are.

          • “The Church”, as you put it, does not mean Rome. It means all of those whom Christ claims as His own (in other words, NOT who claim Christ, but who Christ claims).

          • So you confirm the Church is the One True Faith as God created the Church and is at the head of the Church. The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church; heresies are not valid.

            That is unintentionally brave of you.

          • “Catholic” in that context, simply means faithful, not Roman. Nice try, though.

          • Catholic means Universal (literally “according to the whole”). It means nothing is left out and nothing is unaccounted for.

            It is the name of the One True Faith that God established: the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

            your heresy was created in the 1500’s out of a desire to create a governemnt religion based on the idea of “personal interpretation” to lull people into a stupor.

          • It does not mean Rome. So get over yourself.

          • The Church is Universal. The Catholic Church is the Greek name for that. The Church Fathers spoke Greek before Latin because all people in the West spoke Greek when dealing with foreign nations.

            Latin was consecrated as the official language of the Church in Sacramental uses.

          • The Biblical usage of the term “catholic” still does not mean Rome, so, again, get over yourself.

          • Yes it does, as that is where the Seat of Peter currently is. If it would move somewhere else, it would mean somewhere else.

          • You, sir, are embarrassing yourself with your public display of stubborn ignorance. I would wager you have no idea where they were and what Jesus was pointing at when He uttered that “on this rock” proclamation, so let me help: they were standing by a pagan grotto in the middle east, known as “The Gates of Hell”. He reminded Simon of the name given him by Jesus (a name which means pebble). He then made a statement meaning, “on this cliff face I will build my Church, and The Gates of Hell will not stand against it.”

            He never told Peter, or anyone else, that He was going to build His Church on Peter, but that His Church would conquer paganism, which it, mightily, did.

            Your whole, stubborn argument is based on inaccurate translations and assumptions. As I said, above, you are embarrassing yourself with your public display of stubborn ignorance.

            Please stop. For your own sake, please stop.

          • So you are saying that the Church is a political movement? Lol I suppose that mythology makes sense considering the prot heresy is a political movement without divinity.

            Peter is the Rock the Church was built upon, the gates of hell referred to are the literal gates of hell.

          • You really are getting hopeless, here.

            Let me give you one last chance to rescue your image (be careful, here, because you have to know the customs of the society it was actually spoken into): What did Jesus actually mean when He said “turn to them also the other”?

          • Why don’t you tell me.

            I’m assured you will say it has something to do with invalidating the Church as well as justifying modern right-wing politics. Right?

            How is the Church God Himself created invalid?

          • You really don’t have any clue, do you? Well, we’re done.

          • Do you have an argument? Or is it just this strange blasphemous crap and silly tricks?

          • Jeffrey Job

            These trolls must be surprised when they come to sites like this where there are the ever so rare Catholics who actually know their faith.
            I just keep starting at the beginning: where in the Bible is the list of books that belong in the Bible? That list is obviously outside of Scripture, therefore The Bible Alone is an unbiblical tradition of men.
            The brilliant Bible scholar Scott Hahn was shoved into the Tiber by that very question. He couldn’t answer it and had never occurred to him to ask.
            He had always just accepted the tradition of Protestants that the Bible just was.

          • Ken Abbott

            You are correct that “The Bible Alone” is an unbiblical tradition. However, that is not sola Scriptura. The Reformers never taught that Scripture is the sole authority in matters of Christian faith and practice.

            The answer to your and Mr. Hahn’s question is canonicity.

          • Jeffrey Job

            Define “canonicity”. History is a stubborn thing. It was the Catholic Church that discerned the Canon. There were about 50 writings claiming to be Gospels and about 200 more claiming to be apostolic writings. The Church decided infallibly the canonicity.

            Your claim that Sola Scriptura doesn’t mean soley Scripture is ludicrous. They said many things such as creeds and historical writings may be helpful but only Scriptures were authoritative.

            Protestant and atheist alike go to every extreme to evade Divinely ordained authority for the same reason. You don’t want to surrender your imaginary moral autonomy because you’re afraid you will have to give up you favorite sins and you’re too proud to obey those in authority over you. Just wondering, even though you ignore the Bible teaching that the Apostles forgive or retain sins, are you humble enough to admit your sins to another person? I think that’s most Protestants real problem with the Church. Too much pride to submit will and intellect to another human which I’m sure you regard as inferior to yourself

          • Ken Abbott

            Certainly. Canonicity is a function, an attribute of Scripture, a natural characteristic of the word of God whenever and wherever it appears. It is a consequence of God’s inspiration. It is not man-made but God-breathed. The people of God are able to discern the canon because in it they recognize his voice. The sheep hear the voice of the shepherd; they will not heed the voice of another.

            It is certainly true that the people of God–the corporate church–recognized and endorsed the canon of Scripture, guided by the Spirit that both indwelt them and inspired the writing of the canonical books. And yet the people of God are still sinners and are fallible. History and experience repeatedly bear out the truth that Christians, individually and corporately, make mistakes. We may rightly say that the recognized canon is a fallible collection of infallible books in that we cannot be certain that we have always harkened to the word of God.

            It is historically inaccurate to conflate the imperial catholic church of the early first millennium with the later or modern Roman Catholic Church. They cannot be one and the same body , if for no other reason than the split with Orthodoxy that occurred in the eleventh century. The imperial catholic church was the trunk from which later branches–the Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the confessional Protestant via the Roman Catholic–sprang.

            You misconstrue “sola Scriptura” to assert that Scripture is the lone authority. I tried to give you the true definition above. That which is highest and unique is not necessarily alone. The slogan refers to the teaching of the Reformers that Scripture is the sole infallible authority to which all secondary authorities must conform. To translate another Latin phrase associated with it, Scripture is the norm of norms that is itself not normed. It is the final authority in determining matters of faith and practice and deciding matters of controversy and fidelity to Christian truth. Yet conforming secondary authorities enjoy respect and affirmation within the body of Christ. The Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon are not Scripture themselves but they conform with Scripture and affirm the whole counsel of God (or may by good and necessary consequence be deduced from Scripture) on matters to which they speak.

            What you rightly decried (but mistakenly called “sola Scriptura”) is what some Protestant authors have termed “solo Scriptura,” a “me and my Bible” attitude that rejects legitimate secondary authorities and departs from classical Reformation teaching. That it may be more or less the prevailing idea in modern Protestant churches is regrettable but ultimately beside the point. We should be concerned to learn what things actually are and not mistake the abuse of a thing for the actual thing. This latter tendency is one reason why these kinds of discussions become so acrimonious.

          • Cody

            Amen brother well said.

        • Cody

          Yeh they will find out the hard way, the truth will set you fee. you can only tell them the truth, if they choose not to believe thats their choice.they want to argue but what they are acutely doing is rejecting the Gospel of Christ.

          • you mean they are rejecting your ego that you claim has replaced the “Gospel of Christ.”

            That is blasphemy. Do you what the sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance of blasphemy does to you?

      • Cody

        At least your willing to admit your teachings have falsehoods.

        • What “falsehoods” might that be? As you can see, they put quotes around it to show derision and irony.

          This Venerable Fulton Sheen quote describes you well:

          If some of us who are blessed with its sacred privileges believed the same things about the Church that her slanderers believe, if we knew her only through the words of traitors or third‐rate lies of dishonest historians, if we understood her only through those who were never cradled in her sacred associations, we would perhaps hate the Church just as much as they do. The bitterest enemies of the Church, those who accuse her of being unpatriotic, as Christ was accused of being before Pilate; of being unworldly, as Christ was accused of being before Herod; of being too dogmatic, as Christ was accused of being before Caiaphas; or being too undogmatic, as Christ was accused of being Annas; of being possessed by the devil, as Christ was accused of being before the Pharisees — these do not really hate the Church. They cannot hate the Church any more than they can hate Christ; they hate only that which they mistakenly believe to be the Catholic Church, and their hate is but their vain attempt to ignore. Charity, then, must be shown to persons, and particularly to those outside the fold who by charity must be led back, that there may be one fold and one Shepherd.

    • Priests act In the Person of Christ, and give you a Penance that God agrees to forget your sins if you do it.

      • Cody

        Once again your doctrine is flawed. sorry perhaps you should trust the written word of God, and not some teachings of a religion.

        • Flawed by what standard? The “if I attack the Church my shame over sin will go away?” standard?

          If you cared what the Bible actually says, would you not go to the Church who wrote it? Or do you just like pretending it means whatever you want it to mean?

          you should have just girded your loins and gone to confession.

    • James Blazsik

      Who are you to judge? The Lord promises blessings when you fast. Tell the truth – do you even know what a mass of reparation is?
      Please explain John 20:23.
      You saying that the Catholic Church is false makes all Christianity faise. The Trinity, the deity of Christ, His atonement, resurrection, and the Bible are all Catholic.

  • Beth

    Great idea. I will try this.

  • Tina

    I thought the Ember days we’re Wed, Fri,and Sat. Thurs isn’t an Ember day. Maybe I have been wrong but I feel quite positive this is incorrect

    • Jay W. Richards

      Yep, you’re right. Last time I’ll write a piece while trying to recover from a stomach bug. Copy corrected above.

      • Tina

        Believe me, I would have far more typos- stomach bug or not! I am glad fasting is being encouraged and the value of it explained rather than filed away as something rare and archaic. Thank you for this article!

  • Ray

    Seems to me the proof that Israel received the law, was in the very fact that they stood morning ’till evening hearing Moses, pertaining to,practical matters pertaining to the law, and that they had judges out of every tribe, later on.

    So where is the proof that the Catholic church has received the gospel?

    • The Gospel was written by the first Bishops of the Church, and is just one part of the Church. God founded the Church and is at the Head of the Church. 2000 years of miracles and standing strong despite being attacked by heretics constantly.

      Reminds me of something Chesterton said:

      “What is any man who has been in the real outer world, for instance, to make of the everlasting cry that Catholic traditions are condemned by the Bible? It indicates a jumble of topsy-turvy tests and tail-foremost arguments, of which I never could at any time see the sense. The ordinary sensible sceptic or pagan is standing in the street (in the supreme character of the man in the street) and he sees a procession go by of the priests of some strange cult, carrying their object of worship under a canopy, some of them wearing high head-dresses and carrying symbolical staffs, others carrying scrolls and sacred records, others carrying sacred images and lighted candles before them, others sacred relics in caskets or cases, and so on. I can understand the spectator saying, “This is all hocus-pocus”; I can even understand him, in moments of irritation, breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that might express that general view. I can understand his saying, “Your croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues and scrolls and relics and all the rest of it are bosh.” But in what conceivable frame of mind does he rush in to select one particular scroll of the scriptures of this one particular group (a scroll which had always belonged to them and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was hocus-pocus); why in the world should the man in the street say that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only truth by which all the other things were to be condemned? Why should it not be as superstitious to worship the scrolls as the statues, of that one particular procession? Why should it not be as reasonable to preserve the statues as the scrolls, by the tenets of that particular creed? To say to the priests, “Your statues and scrolls are condemned by our common sense,” is sensible. To say, “Your statues are condemned by your scrolls, and we are going to worship one part of your procession and wreck the rest,” is not sensible from any standpoint, least of all that of the man in the street.”

    • James Blazsik

      The reason you have the Gospel is because of the Catholic Church. Where is the proof you have received the Gospel?

      • Ray

        The proof is in the fruit. See my above post. I am for what I say in it. Is the Catholic Church? Not so much, and that is stating the fact mildly. If they had been for it, they would not be in the mess they are in. They have been doing church wrong for so long, which is why they are in the mess they are in.

        Where are their delivering judges? Where are the ones who say, “Come to me and let me hear of your matters to see if they are just. I will plead the cause of the just and I will hear the voice of the oppressed.”? Tell me, when was the last time you hear that kind of sermon preached from a Catholic pulpit? Where is a Catholic church that trains it’s people to hear matters that are the cause of any present distress? Show me the fruit.

        I say they are acting like they have not received the gospel.

      • Ray

        Did Paul get the gospel because of the Catholic church? According to the Bible, as far as I read it, God doesn’t need the Catholic church to get the gospel out.

        Do you believe there would not be any automobiles in the world today, were it not for Henry Ford? Is Henry Ford the only one who could ever make an automobile?

        And, as far as I can tell, there are not so many times that God swore by himself, but one of the times he did swear by himself as in Jer 22, and it’s in the context of what would happen and did happen because the people did not listen to the word of God about doing judgement and justice, about delivering the oppressed, and such things, which things are works, in operation, and not just talk. Yet speaking of talk, Have you ever heard it preached from a Catholic pulpit about the power of this blessing, such that it was more powerful than all of Israel’s sins of idolatry, all of them put together, that it had the power of God behind it with an oath, such that it is clearly implied that doing this, could have kept them from the captivity of Babylon, even though it had been clearly prophesied? Have you even heard it preached from a Catholic pulpit?

        Have you ever seen it practiced? Do you believe this could have been the remedy, the preventative power, that could have kept the Catholic church from being in the condition that it is in, right now? I do. It had the power to keep Israel out of Babylon even though it was clearly prophesied that they would go into that captivity, and God even implied that it did, by sending his word here in Jeremiah, and even swearing by an oath, even by his own name.

        Do you believe God cares about his own name? I do. Do you believe he keeps the things he has sworn?

        Do you believe the power of the good news of God, is greater than the power of all the generations of sins? I do. Are you for that good news? I’m just looking for a little token from you that you are a Christian.

        • James Blazsik

          Paul was part of the Catholic Church founded by Christ from the very beginning. You don’t know Church history, which is full of Catholic saints who have done the very thing you speak of.
          The Trinity, deity of Christ, His atoning death, resurrection and the Scriptures all came from the Catholic Church.
          The Catholic Church has the 7 sacraments which is an incredible treasure.
          The Catholic Church celebrates the Divine Liturgy where we read more Scripture in one Mass than most evangelical churches read in a month.
          The Catholic Church celebrates the Holy Eucharist in obeying Christ by eating His Body and Blood.
          Pope Saint John Paul ll was used by God along with Ronald Reagan to bring down Soviet communism.
          The Catholic Church is the greatest charity and relief organization in the world, which Saint Mother Teresa was an example.
          There are 2 billion Christians in the world, and Catholics make up 1.2 billion. Along with the Orthodox (that largely agrees in theology) it totals 1.5 billion. The Catholic Church is exploding in Africa and Asia. It is truly a world wide Church.
          I was born into the Catholic Church. I left when I was a teenager and spent 20 years in the evangelical world. I went to non – denominational churches, attended a Pentecostal college, became a United Methodist youth pastor, got into Reformed theology (Calvinism), and even attended a baptist church. I became an Anglican priest.
          In the end, I found that the Catholic Church was the church that bests fulfill Scripture.
          What church do you belong to?

          • Ray

            You say that Paul was a part of the Catholic church. Are you saying that the Catholic church is the only true church? I knew a Jehovah’s Witness who said that his church was the only true church.

          • James Blazsik

            The Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ and contains the faith in all it’s fullness. The only true Church consists of all baptized Christians.

        • Steve

          You raise a lot of interesting points but ask yourself can you prove them anymore than disprove them. Faith is something felt based on education and critical thinking. Go with what you will but realize it may work for you. You need to decide if its guaranteed your plan. At the end of the day faith often revives.

    • Steve

      There are many rotten apples in the leadership and the congregation but the liturgy is alive and well. Do not throw out the baby with the bathwater or in this case the congregation should light the candle and throw out the trash.

  • Jennifer Hartline

    Jay, why not Thursday?

    • Jay W. Richards

      The only thing I’ve been able to figure out is that Christians fasted for centuries on Wednesday (the day of Jesus’ betrayal and Friday (crucifixion), so on Embers Days they added Saturday to that pattern. Hence the confusing regular Thursday.

  • Steve

    Any day is a good day to fast not only for the state of most Americans – heck the world – in terms of overweight. It seems only right to tie in an abstinence from anything to dedicate to improving things including our relationships to God and others as able. The reason I say as able is because I do not believe Christians should endanger themselves physically or spiritually. Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves comes to mind.

    • Jay W. Richards

      Indeed, I think that, assuming one is otherwise in a good health, a proper fast should be “good for you” in the complete sense: body, mind, and soul.

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