Commemorating Ember Days during Lent

Ember Days are an ancient tradition of the catholic church which are three days of fasting, abstinence and prayer set aside four times a year. Their origins lay within the Latin Quatuor Tempora which means four times and roughly following the seasons of the earth. They are celebrated as the sanctification of humanity and likely came about because of the reliance on agriculture (and thus the seasons) of early human societies. In fact, there is little doubt that the long origins of Ember Days resides with ancient societies who practiced feasts and festivals around the changing of the seasons– a profoundly important occurrence for any small, agriculturally dependant group of humans.

The observance of Ember Days within the church started in Rome during the pontificate of Pope Leo I in the 400s AD. Pope Leo wanted a series of days of fasts fixed throughout the year to balance the fasting and penitence found within the great seasons of Pentecost and Epiphany. As they spread throughout European Christianity in the 500s AD, they became fixed and throughout the early modern church the Ember Days were observed accordingly:

The days of Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of an Ember Week shall be observed on the following (emphasize added for relevance to Lent),

  • between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent (although the Common Worship lectionary of the Church of England places them in the week following the second Sunday in Advent); but because the calendar reform in the 1970s includes specific “Late Advent” propers for Dec 17 onward, when Ember Days were restored for the Personal Ordinariates, the Vatican assigned the Ember Days to the first week of Advent.
  • between the first and second Sundays of Lent;
  • between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday; and
  • the liturgical Third Week of September.

Tomorrow, Wednesday 24 February 2021 will be Ember Wednesday in Lent. However, the current Roman calendar does not recognize Ember Days and they have in fact not been a large part of the catholic church in North America for many decades. In fact, most catholics are not even aware of what Ember Days are and what their significance is within the church. During Ember Days, the faithful pray for humanity as a whole. We reflect on our duty as stewards of the earth and pray for bountiful harvests that do not harm the earth to the point we are unable to continue to live and survive off of the land. We dedicate three days over four periods during the year (twelve days a year in total) to look inward and downward at the ground, praising and thanking God for what He has given us through the earth and honouring the environment around us in order to ensure we continue to benefit from it as time moves forward. It was also a time when we ordained priests and today we can pray for the priests in our lives and for those young men (and women) who aspire for the priesthood and are in a period of discernment. It is an absolutely relevant and fitting period of days that ought to be honoured and set aside.

So how can we incorporate Ember Days into our prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours when they are not part of the official calendar? Well, there are certainly no rubrics or instructions for this sort of this within the General Instructions of the Liturgy of the Hours. But there is a tradition and a formula for commemorating feasts, during Lent in particular. We also have prayers and antiphons from when Ember Days were observed and these can be found in older Breviaries when it was part of the church calendar. Using the existing rubrics as a guide (I have to stress there are not official instructions on this and if you are a stickler for rule following than we’ve just treaded outside of what is prescribed, my defence is that we remain in what ought to be permitted), we can commemorate Ember Days the same way we commemorate memorials as options during privileged seasons (such as Lent).

How would this work exactly? Well, as I explained in this post before, when we commemorate an optional memorial during Lent we either add a third reading to the Office of Readings complete with a responsory and/or we add the antiphon for the Gospel Canticle and collect for the commemoration at the end of Morning/Evening Prayer. You however will not find the collects or antiphons for Embers Days in Lent in your Liturgy of the Hours or Christian Prayer books because these days are no longer officially part of the church calendar. But you can still commemorate them during your daily prayer if you decide– just like any other optional memorial during Lent. But you need the collect and the antiphons and I’ve done just that for you by pulling them from older prayer books. Below you find a collect and an antiphon for each Gospel Canticle for each of the Ember Days during Lent. I do not have a reading to add to the Office of Readings, so unfortunately this commemoration can only occur at Morning/Evening Prayer to remain in line with the existing rubrics. Following the directions in my previous post about commemorations during Lent and add in these prayers below and you are all set.

Ember Wednesday in Lent

Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to hear our prayers, and to stretch forth the right hand of thy power against all things that fight against us. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Ant. on Ben (Morning Prayer): This generation, being perverse, and crooked, seeketh a sign from me, and no sign shall be given to it, but the sign of Jonas the Prophet.

Ant. on Mag (Evening Prayer): For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth.

Ember Friday in Lent

Collect: Be gracious unto thy people, O Lord, and in thy mercy help all such as Thou hast called to be thine. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Ant. on Ben (Morning Prayer): An Angel of the Lord went down from heaven, and trouble the waters; and whoever first did step therein was made whole.

Ant. on Mag (Evening Prayer): He that made me whole, the same said unto me: Take up they bed, and go in peace.

Ember Saturday in Lent

Collect: Look down mercifully, O Lord, we beseech thee, upon thy people, and graciously turn away from them the scourges of thy wrath. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Ant. on Ben (Morning Prayer): And Jesus taketh his disciples, and bringth them up into a high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them.

A note on Evening Prayer for Saturday: because the 2nd Sunday of Lent is tomorrow, this Saturday evening is Evening Prayer I of Sunday and this has no Ember Day commemoration at all.

Feature Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash.

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