On the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the first week of the season of Advent, Divine Worship: The Missal gives three Mass formularies for the winter, or Advent, Ember Days. In the Book of Common Prayer, as in the calendar and missal of 1962, these fall in the last full week of Advent, following the feast of Saint Lucy on 13 December. They are days traditionally marked by fasting and abstinence, and from at least the fifth century they were also associated with the spiritual preparation for ordinations. Here we will briefly consider the Ember Days in general, and also the particular context of the Ember Days of Advent in Divine Worship: The Missal.
General Overview of Ember Days
The Golden Legend (c. 1260) tells us that the Ember Days were inaugurated by Pope Calixtus (†c. 223), although we learn from the same text that their origins may be traced back to certain Jewish fasts connected with four times in the year: “before their Passover, before their Pentecost, before the Feast of Tabernacles in September, and before the feast of Dedication in December.” This would explain the Latin title given to these days: quattuor anni tempora (the four times of the year). Some authors indicate that Pope Calixtus added the commemoration of the Saturday to an already existing practice on Wednesday and Friday, and Pope Saint Leo the Great (†461) links this with the tradition of a weekly Saturday vigil at the tomb of Saint Peter in Rome (Sermon XIX). We might note that it was as late as 1078 that the dates for the annual observance of the Ember Days were finally confirmed, by Pope Gregory VII at a Synod in Rome.
The celebration of Ember Days began in England during the time of Saint Augustine, influenced by the Roman liturgy. The term “Ember Day” itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ymbren, meaning a “circuit”, indicative of the annual cycle marked by the four commemorations. Their observance was mandated by the Second Council of Clovesho in 747, convoked by Saint Cuthbert of Canterbury, and they are further mentioned in the Enham Code (sometimes Ænham) of 1008, and the proceedings of the Provincial Council of Oxford, convoked by Archbishop Stephen Langton in 1222. An later old English rhyme recalls the dates of these commemorations: “Fasting days and Emberings be Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie”, indicating their observance at specific times in the liturgical year. Indeed, according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, Ember Days continue in the Church of England to this day to be kept at these times.
The connection between the Ember Days and ordinations was particularly strong in England, and this continued in the practice of Anglicanism (something reflected in the choices of collects in Divine Worship for Ember Saturday in Advent). The 1604 Ecclesiastical Canons of the Church of England mandate that “no Deacons or Ministers be ordained and made, but only upon the Sundays immediately following Jejunia quatuor temporum, commonly called Ember-weeks, appointed in ancient time for prayer an fasting (purposely for this cause at their first institution) and so continued at this day in the Church of England” (c. XXXI). According to Dom Prosper Guéranger, this was also the practice in Rome, from at least the time of Pope Gelasius I (†496). It is by reason of this connection that Anglican ordinands have traditionally sent out “Ember Cards” to invite prayers for their forthcoming ordination, and—especially in North America—there is the tradition of producing an “Ember Letter”, by which clergy and ordinands submit a report to their bishop four times a year, in accord with the keeping of the Ember Days. The 2012 Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church retains this as a requirement of ecclesiastical law (cf. III. 6.3e; III. 8.3e).
In the Catholic Church, the calendar of the 1962 Missale Romanum also preserves the commemoration of the Ember Days at this time, but the complete Mass formularies are not found in the post-conciliar Missale Romanum. It is worth noting, however, that certain of the collects from the Ember Days (albeit with some alterations) are found spread throughout the Advent season in the Ordinary Form.
Furthermore, following the change of the fasting prescriptions by Blessed Pope Paul VI in his apostolic constitution Paenitemini of 17 February 1966, these commemorations were eventually removed from the General Roman Calendar though, as we shall see, their celebration was not altogether suppressed.
Three years later, in fact, Pope Paul VI promulgated the new Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, including the General Roman Calendar that came into force on 1 January 1970. After recalling the purpose of Ember Days, the Norms state: “In order that the Rogation Days and Ember Days may be adapted to the different regions and different needs of the faithful, the Conferences of Bishops should arrange the time and manner in which they are held. Consequently, concerning their duration, whether they are to last one or more days, or be repeated in the course of the year, norms are to be established by the competent authority, taking into consideration local needs” (n. 46). They further state that one of the Masses for Various Needs, found in the post-conciliar Roman Missal, should be appropriated to each of these commemorations (n. 47). This is drawn out in the Instruction of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, dated 23 June 1970, Calendaria Particularia, which states that it belongs to the episcopal conference of a particular territory to decide how these celebrations are to be kept, setting the dates, purpose, and number of days for the commemoration of the Ember Days, together with a specification of the Mass formulary to be taken from the Missale Romanum. In the present edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal we further read: “In the drawing up of a Calendar of a nation, the Rogation Days and Ember Days should be indicated (cf. no. 373), as well as the forms and texts for their celebration” (IGMR 394). In 2008 the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference utilized this provision, making the first Friday of Autumn and Spring (March and September) days of special prayer and penance, and recommending the use of the second of Mass for the Blessing of Man’s Labour, and the Mass for Forgiveness of Sins, both found in the 2002 Missale Romanum.
Why have the Advent Ember Days moved?
With all of this in mind we can ask what the prescription of Ember Days in Divine Worship: The Missal might indicate, and also what is the purpose of the decision to move the Advent Ember Days from their ancient position in the calendar of the personal ordinariates?
First we must note the significance of the inclusion of mandatory Ember Days in the personal ordinariates, in a general sense. This not only preserves within the Catholic Church a worthy element of the Anglican liturgical patrimony, itself drawn from the ancient practice of the Church, but also has the advantage of reintroducing members of the wider Latin Church to the practice and commemoration of the Ember Days which was not, as we have seen, completely abandoned by the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, but which is nevertheless rarely found (cf. RD 6; AC III). Indeed, setting aside for a moment the question of the transfer of the time of these commemorations, we might observe that the provision of the Ember Days in a “local” context (albeit a locality configured by personality and not by territory), represents something of an outworking of the principal of subsidiarity seemingly desired by the post-conciliar legislation we have considered. With the three extant personal ordinariates covering at least seven territories (Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, the Torres Strait, the United States, Wales), and five episcopal conferences (Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Scotland, and the United States), the provision of a single and uniform set of Ember Days across the jurisdictions is understandable, and pastorally responsible.
Secondly, referring to the question of the move of the Advent Ember Days, we note the explanation given by Bishop-Elect Steven Lopes, formerly Secretary of the Indicasterial Commission Anglicanæ Traditiones, on this very point. He notes that the post-conciliar liturgical reforms “thought it desirable to prune away [Advent] Ember Days so as not to detract from the late-Advent focus on the Lord’s Nativity.” This “last-Advent focus” was given voice in the addition of special Mass formularies for the final days of Advent, from 17-24 December, in the post-conciliar Missale Romanum. We read that the Anglicanæ Traditiones commission sought, in that light, to achieve two ends: “(1) to maintain the Ember Days and their proper seasonal context as expressive of a venerable element of Anglican worship; (2) to appreciate and incorporate the richness of the proper Masses for December 17-24 in harmony with [the Ordinary Form of] the Roman Rite” (Steven Lopes, “A Missal for the Ordinariate,” Antiphon 19, no. 2  128-129).
This principle led to the decision to retain the Ember Days as mandatory celebrations in the personal ordinariates, and to retain the general liturgical and natural seasonal character of the commemorations (i.e., in winter, December, and Advent), albeit locating them now in the first week of Advent, in order to also allow for the celebration of the proper Masses given for the final days of Advent. The celebration of these final days, marked as they are by the traditional “O Antiphons” (amongst the few antiphons known in the public celebration of the daily office in Anglicanism), is further enriched in Divine Worship: The Missal by the inclusion of the verse O Virgo virginum in the Alleluia at the morning Mass on Christmas Eve, in keeping with the old English tradition. This decision is summarised in these words of Bishop-Elect Lopes, referring to the work of the commission: “the Advent context of the December Ember Days was judged to be the factor of importance, not the location of the celebration in the third week of Advent.”
As we have seen, the calculation of the Ember Days is by no means unimportant. They have often been linked not only with the natural season of the year, and the month of December (the “tenth month” of Pope Saint Leo’s sermons), but also with the agricultural harvest—indicated by certain Mass lections in the older Roman Missal (particularly in the Ember Days of September). However, as Gregory DiPippo has pointed out, the link with the harvest was itself not the case with the winter commemorations. As he says, the clearest connection between the Ember Days of this time was with ordinations—a spiritual rather than natural harvest, we might say—as was particularly the case in Rome, later in England and, as we have noted, also continued in the practice of Anglicanism.
Whatever the merits of the decision to relocate the Ember Days in Divine Worship, their inclusion is a significant and great gift, and an important contribution to the liturgical life of the personal ordinariates and, also, to their role as vehicles for the enrichment of the wider Latin Church. By their inclusion their general importance is brought to the fore, and we might perhaps hope that these jewels of the liturgical calendar find a renewed role in the life of the Church of our day.
In particular, the reestablishment of the connection between these winter Ember Days and the rites associated with ordination, and perhaps also general prayer for vocations, seems opportune. Using such days as true times of penance and fasting for these noble ends is not only in keeping with the Anglican liturgical patrimony, now given a home in the Catholic Church through the personal ordinariates, but also with the ancient character of these commemorations, a character that belongs to the whole Church, and that offers a rich gift to those who seek to know Christ, to love him, and to serve him.
Please do not reproduce this text elsewhere without permission of the author.
Some suggested further online reading:
Gregory DiPippo, “Liturgical Notes on the Ember Days of September“.
Gregory DiPippo, “The Golden Mass of Ember Wednesday“.
Shawn Tribe, “Ember Days: Explanation and Proposals“.
Shawn Tribe, “Advent Ember Days“.
Michael Foley, “The Glow of the Ember Days“.