Ember days (corruption from Lat.
, four times) are the days at the beginning of the seasons ordered by
the Church as days of fast and abstinence. They were definitely arranged and
prescribed for the entire Church by Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) for the
Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after 13 December (S. Lucia), after Ash
Wednesday, after Whitsunday, and after 14 September (Exaltation of the Cross).
The purpose of their introduction, besides the general one intended by all
prayer and fasting, was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to
make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.
The immediate occasion was the practice of the heathens of Rome. The Romans were
originally given to agriculture, and their native gods belonged to the same
class. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious
ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a
bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the
seeding; hence their
feriae sementivae, feriae messis
The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any
practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. At first the Church in
Rome had fasts in June, September, and December; the exact days were not fixed
but were announced by the priests. The "Liber Pontificalis" ascribes
to Pope Callistus (217-222) a law ordering: the fast, but probably it is older.
Leo the Great (440-461) considers it an Apostolic institution. When the fourth
season was added cannot be ascertained, but Gelasius (492-496) speaks of all
four. This pope also permitted the conferring of priesthood and deaconship on
the Saturdays of ember week--these were formerly given only at Easter.
Before Gelasius the ember days were known only in Rome, but after his time their
observance spread. They were brought into England by St. Augustine; into Gaul
and Germany by the Carlovingians. Spain adopted them with the Roman Liturgy in
the eleventh century. They were introduced by St. Charles Borromeo into Milan.
The Eastern Church does not know them. The present Roman Missal, in the
formulary for the Ember days, retains in part the old practice of lessons from
Scripture in addition to the ordinary two: for the Wednesdays three, for the
Saturdays six, and seven for the Saturday in December. Some of these lessons
contain promises of a bountiful harvest for those that serve God.
Transcribed by Carl H. Horst
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V
Copyright © 1909 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909.
Remy Lafort, Censor
+John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York