The bishop of Pittsburgh, David Zubik, announced a week ago that he was proclaiming a year of repentance in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, calling on all clergy to observe the Ember Days. Huh? What exactly are the Ember Days? And how is it they are connected to repentance?
While called Ember Days, the word ember is probably a mistaken use. The word was first tempora, the word for time. There were four times in the course of a year that the days were celebrated. The original connection was likely the harvest, and the idea was probably taken from the Romans. The idea was to acknowledge the importance of the harvest to the life of the community.
Without an attempt to specifically acknowledge dependence, we can begin to take things for granted. We celebrate birthdays, days for our parents (Mother’s Day and Father’s Day) and anniversaries. Usually such days are accompanied by some sacrifice on the part of the ones doing the celebrations. We buy gifts for a birthday. We might make our mothers breakfast in bed. Spouses sacrifice time looking for a gift, and maybe the money to buy it because of their love.
This was the reason that the Church developed Ember days. They were designed as four sets of three days, in order to help all people remember ultimate dependence upon God. They are, like Fridays in Lent, days of fasting and abstinence. They are times to recall God’s boundless love in forgiving not only our own personal sins, but the sins of the entire Church.
Individuals performing penance for sins other than their own has a long history in the Church. It is also mentioned today in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For example, priests are to do penance for the people who confess their sins to them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. [The priest] must pray and do penance for his penitent, entrusting him to the Lord’s mercy. (CCC, 1466)
Earlier, in the same section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it says this:
The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: effort at reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity “which covers a multitude of sins.”
Perhaps restoring the practices of Ember Days would help the Church to see that the primary trust must always be in the Lord Jesus. That for each of us, the leaders of the Church have authority only to the degree they follow the will of God in their lives. And it also reminds me of the importance of my own feeble attempt at personal witness to the power of the Gospel to change my heart. To recognize that any holiness I may achieve is only because of the grace of God. To remind me that my heart is always in need of conversion. So I have decided to observe the Ember days this year, as a sign of my public penance and a desire to become more like Jesus.
When are the Ember Days this year?
The Ember Days are the Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays following the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, after the celebration of Saint Lucy (December 13), after Ash Wednesday, and after Pentecost. Specifically, the next four are: September 19, 21, 22; December 19, 21, 22; March 13, 15, 16; June 12, 14, 15.
What does someone do to observe the Ember Days?
These are days were a person abstains from meat (like Fridays during Lent), fasts (like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), and makes a holy hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament on each of the Ember Days.