What are Ember Days?

The publication of Treasury of Daily Prayer included an essay on the Ember Days, and this has lead to some questions, both to me as the author of the essay and the general editor of the book, and on various e-mail lists. This is a legitimate question, especially in the Lutheran community that, by and large, has probably not heard of them or think of them as something only quirky liturgical extremists do. So maybe we should extend the question to: what are Ember Days, and why would a Lutheran care?

The Catholic Encyclopedia has a entry for Ember Days, but it leaves much unanswered. Actually, the conservative Catholic site, Fisheaters, has a very fine article on the origin and development of Ember Days in the Roman Church. Pulling liberally from the article on Fisheaters as well as from my essay in Treasury of Daily Prayer, we can understand Ember Days as the time set aside four times a year to focus on God through His marvelous creation: seeking God’s blessings upon the fruits of the earth and acknowledging that all food comes from Him. The three days of each Embertide were marked by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving as prescribed by the church. These quarterly periods take place around the beginnings of the four natural seasons:

Winter — Advent Embertide

Spring — Lenten Embertide

Summer — Whit Embertide

Autumn — Michaelmas Embertide.

These four times are each kept on a successive Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and are known as “Ember Days” (supposedly a corruption from Latin, quatuor tempora = four times, corrupted to quatember, then to ember). The first of these four times comes in Winter, after the the Feast of St. Lucy; the second comes in Spring, the week after Ash Wednesday; the third comes in Summer, after Pentecost Sunday; and the last comes in Autumn, after Holy Cross Day. Their dates can be remembered by this old mnemonic:

Sant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angaria quarta sequens feria.

Which for those of us who don’t think in Latin:

Holy Cross, Lucy, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost,
are when the quarter holidays follow.

The handy shortcut for remembering the holidays that herald the Ember Days is “Lucy, Ashes, Dove, and Cross.”

Well, as I said, good information at Fisheaters about the origin and development of the Ember Days in the Roman Catholic tradition.

The Ember Days comprise the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday:

following the Commemoration of St. Lucia (December 13).

of the week following the first Sunday in Lent;

of the week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday;

following the Feast of the Holy Cross (September 14);

Then came the Reformation.

In the Church of the Reformation, the Ember days marked a season of piety especially devoted to preaching on the Catechism.

Martin Brecht writes: “In Wittenberg it appears that Pastor Bugenhagen treated the catechism four times a year. When he was in Brunswick in 1528, Luther substituted for him at the task” Martin Luther, Martin Brecht (Minneapolis:Fortress Press, 1994) II:274.

In the editor’s preface to the last of Luther’s 1528 series of sermons on the Catechism we hear Luther: “It has hitherto been our custom to teach the elements and fundamentals of Christian knowledge and life four times each year.” Luther’s Works – American Edition

The Ember Days were originally days of prayer, repentance, and fasting. After the Reformation, the Ember Days themselves became for Lutherans one of the roots of the evangelical “days of repentance” Paul Graff.

Pastor Benjamin Mayes, a colleague of mine, did a little bit of work in the German sources. Some of this was for his presentation of the Ember Days’ propers for the Brotherhood Prayer Book, some specifically to help me in the Treasury’s presentation. Pastor Mayes:

In Braunschweig 1657/1709, the Ember Days had the order of service for a day of repentance as their liturgy (I:221). Here, all four [sets of] Ember Days were expressly retained (I:228). Some areas put their days of repentance on other days, not necessarily on the Ember Days.

“The ‘repentance services’ are either simple prayer hours held on certain days of the week, or services similar to the chief service on certain high ‘days of repentance, prayer, and fasting.’ These prayer hours cannot, as already mentioned, be confused with the prayer hours already described–occurring one or several times weekly, i.e. morning and evening devotions –although they are very similar in their structure. The prayer hours in question here are in the whole more or less similar to a public festival of repentance. Hymns of repentance are often prescribed. In the prayers, one asks to be forgiven of guilt (Litany) and spared from punishment (war and other distresses, collect for peace and ‘Grant peace, we pray, in mercy, Lord’). In short: these prayer hours –whether daily, whether once or more weekly, whether monthly, such as depending on the change of the moon, whether quarterly, such as depending on the Ember Days, (also perhaps with the command to fast,) or otherwise regularly repeating–give these days a character completely their own, so that such a day becomes itself a day or prayer (day of repentance).” (I:221)

Even in the 16th cent., the Lutherans in north Germany regularly observed the Ember Days as Days of Repentance. (I:225).

[In preparing the] Brotherhood Prayer Book, I researched Roman, Anglican, and German Lutheran books. Often I didn’t find much in the way of special propers or rubrics for the Ember Days. Some of them have their own readings and collects which have the theme of the season they’re in. This is especially the case for the Lent Ember Days (after Invocavit) and the Pentecost Ember Days (during the octave of Pentecost), because those days have proper readings anyway. (Here by proper readings, I mean a distinct set of propers for office and mass.)

Here’s what the 1613 Magdeburg Cathedral Service Book has for propers on the Ember Days.

Wednesday after Advent 3: Invitatory and antiphons and responsory with an Advent theme or from the ordinary. Collect as in the Brotherhood Prayer Book. It is not marked as being an Ember Day. The readings appear to be a lectio continua. Antiphon for Magnificat: O Antiphon.
Friday after Advent 3: Same as above, except: Antiphon for Benedictus, same as Brotherhood Prayer Book text edition, p. 235. Different collect.
Saturday after Advent 3: Same as Wednesday, except: Antiphon for Benedictus: “Behold how glorious is he who goes forth to save the peoples.” Different collect.

Wednesday after Lent 1 (Invocavit) is listed as an Ember Day. Matins: Reading as in BPB, p. 255. Antiphon for Benedictus as in BPB (ant. for Magn.). Collect from Quinquagesima (which is very similar to the collect in BPB, p. 255). Vespers: Lectio continua from Gen. 44. Ant. for Magn.: “If anyone does the will of My Father, he is my brother, sister, and mother.” Collect from Sunday.
Friday after Lent 1. Not listed as Ember Day. Ant. for Ben. “Lord, I do not have a man, that when the water is moved, he may cast me into the pool.” Lectio continua. Vespers: Ant. for Magn., same as BPB, p. 255. Lectio continua. Collect from Sunday.
Saturday after Lent 1. Not listed as Ember Day. Lauds: Ant. for Ben., same as BPB (ant. for Magn.). Lectio Continua. Collect for Peace (same as in TLH Vespers). Vespers: Lectio continua. Ant. for Magn., same as at Matins.

Wednesday in the Octave of Pentecost. Not listed as Ember Day. Matins: Reading same as BPB, p. 279. Lauds: Ant. for Ben. “When the dies of Pentecost were completed, alleluia, praise came to Jerusalem, alleluia, to Zion.” Collect from Sunday. Vespers: Lectio continua. Ant. for Magn. “On the last day of the feast, Jesus said, Whoever believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from his belly, and He said this concerning the Spirit, whom there were to receive, who believe in Him, alleluia.” Different collect.

Well, that gives you a taste of what’s going on in the Magdeburg Cathedral.

Martin Chemnitz, in the Braunschweig-Wölfenbüttel KO, which is referenced above, writes:

Also, since up to the present the quatember [fasts] have been conducted in papal fashion, henceforth all pastors and preachers in the cities shall at every quatember, instead of the regular preaching, for fourteen consecutive days, take up the catechism and divide it up, that all of it may be set before the people and usefully explained throughout. And they shall also earnestly admonish the people that they, together with their children and domestic servants, be diligent in attending such useful and very necessary teaching and not be absent.

And also during the quatember mentioned the pastors [pfarner] in the villages shall be diligent, so much as the time and place permit, to very carefully explain and inform the people regarding the catechism, which is a measure of all preaching.

Taken together, this is the basis for the suggestion to treat the Ember Days as “A Day of Humiliation and Prayer” and for promoting the Ember Days as a time to give special attention to the elements and fundamentals of Christian knowledge and life found in the Catechisms. Review and meditation on the Chief Parts of Luther’s Small Catechism could be added to one’s daily devotion: Wednesday: Ten Commandments and Creed, Friday: Lord’s Prayer and Holy Baptism, Saturday: Confession and Sacrament of the Altar

confessionThe traditional themes of repentance can be used in one’s personal daily prayer in a way that is already familiar, as a Day of Supplication and Prayer. (Propers appointed for a Day of Supplication and Prayer can be found in the LSB: Altar Book, page 992.) Hymns of confession and absolution would be suitable. The appointed lectio continua readings of daily prayer is retained. In prayers, it would be fitting of the days to ask to be forgiven of guilt (cf. the Litany), to be spared from punishment (war and other distresses), and to pray the collect for peace (Vespers, LSB, 233).

In the Lutheran congregation Individual Confession and Absolution could be offered quarterly on the Saturdays of the Embertides. More challenging, but no doubt it would garner great rewards in faith and understanding, would be to reestablish the practice of Luther, Bugenhagen and others “to teach the elements and fundamentals of Christian knowledge and life four times each year.

2 thoughts on “What are Ember Days?

  1. This year, Holy Cross Day is on a Wednesday. If I read the rubrics correctly, the Ember Days start with Wednesday of the next week. Does that mean that this Ember Wednesday displaces the Festival of St. Matthew, Evangelist (Sept. 21)? What have you done when an Ember Day falls on the same day as a festival? Thanks, Mark S

    • Pastor Stirdivant,
      Feast and Festivals that are being observed should always supersede minor observances, including an Ember Day. The remaining Ember Days could certainly be observed, if that is congregational practice or personal piety.

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