“Who then is so wretched and pitiable, that beholding the heavens; and beholding sea, and land; and beholding the exact adjustment of the seasons, and the unfailing order of day and night, he can think that these things happen of their own accord, instead of adoring Him Who has arranged them all with a corresponding wisdom!”
– St. John Chrysostom, Homily IX, 4th century.
[NOTE: Numerous articles written by good authors can be found on the history and meaning of ember days. The following is only a mere clumsy overview. It is an old tradition among Western rite Catholics and Anglican Protestants.]
Four times a year, while marking the end of one season and the beginning of the next, we are grateful for God’s glorious and marvelous creation! In our stewardship of this creation we should be especially mindful of being temperate and moderate towards our own needs, while being generous towards the needs of others. Therefore, four times a year we pray, fast, abstain from meat, read extra scriptures, and give charitable donations during a time called Embertide, or Four Seasons (Quatuor Tempora). The days of each embertide are a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday within one week.
These four-times-a-year fasts are rooted in the Old Testament practices of fasting four times a year, which were a unique blend of joy, gladness, moderation, and penance. (Zach. 8:19)
The reason there are three days that make up an Embertide is in order to make penitential amends for our failures over the previous three-month season. It was also to temper three aspects of our spirit: the understanding, the will, and the mind
It is interesting to note that the Old Testament Israelites did weekly penance (fast, abstain, etc) on Tuesdays and Thursdays every week of the year, and that for centuries the Christian Church did their weekly fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Wednesday marks when Judas betrayed Jesus, and Friday marks when our Lord was crucified. Therefore, an Embertide week only added a third day to the already existent weekly Christian custom: Saturday, when the Lord lay in the Sepulcher while the apostles were sore of heart.
In addition to the extra liturgical scripture readings assigned to the different Embertides, called Lessons, there are other scriptures customary for private meditation during this time of admiring God’s providential handiwork! Examples:
- Ecclesiasticus 43 (The firmament on high is his beauty, the beauty of heaven . . )
- Psalm 103 (Bless the Lord, O my soul: O Lord my God, thou art exceedingly great. . . )
- Psalm 148 (Praise ye the Lord from the heavens . . . )
- Daniel 3:52-90 (Blessed art thou, O Lord the God of our fathers . . . )
FOR MORE INFO: If you wish to read richer and deeper writings about Embertide, check out https://www.fisheaters.com/emberdays.html or https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2008/09/glow-of-ember-days.html .
THE “MICHAELMAS” EMBERTIDE OF SEPTEMBER
The embertide that honors the beginning of autumn and the maturing harvest occurs sometime between the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14 September) and the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel (29 September).
The key seasonal emphases for this particular embertide are the following two points: A] Joyful gratitude for God’s abundant providence, by savoring and appreciating the simple pleasures of life. B] Placing all trust and dependence on God alone, and thus looking to God as our source of fortitude and perseverance.
Further, Blessed Jacopo de Voragine (1230-1298 AD) wrote in his book Legenda Aurea that Pope Callixtus (r. 218-223 AD) had ordained the autumnal Embertide in September for the following reasons:
1) To repress the cool dryness of pride and false humility
2) To render to God the fruits of good works, at the time of harvest
3) To remember the Israelites’ setting the tabernacle in the temple in September
4) To spend three days to temper the understanding, the will, and the mind
5) To refrain from the melancholy vices, especially covetousness, heavy handedness, and cold heartedness. (see below)
6) To enlighten the dark earthiness of our ignorance.
7) To honor God’s providential gifts by being ripe with temperance
Scriptures for Ember Wednesday in September:
- Amos 9:13-152
- Esdras (Nehemiah) 8:1-10
- Mark 9:16-28
Scriptures for Ember Friday in September:
- Osee (Hosea) 14:2-10
- Luke 7:36-50
- Lev. 23:26-32, 39-43
- Micheas (Micah) 7:14, 16, 18-20
- Zach. 8:14-19
- Daniel 3:47-56
- Hebrews 9:2-12
- Luke 13:6-17
FOR MORE INFO: A short meditation for each of the three autumn ember days, written in 1944, can be found at http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/prayers/view.cfm?id=1368
BEING IN A MELANCHOLIC HUMOR
Bundling people’s tendencies up into four different humors has been done since at least 400 BC. There is a historic association of the season of autumn with the earthy, cool, dry humor. This humor, more modernly referred to as The Melancholy Temperament (Galen) or The Guardians (Keirsey-Bates), brings its own tendencies of virtues and vices when it is greater than the other three humors within a person.* Honoring the mind-body-soul connection, it is interesting to take note of this association of humor-season-spiritual welfare.
Melancholy Virtues: Kindness, Compassion, Piety, Prudence, Cooperation, Conscientiousness, Trustworthiness, Stability, Dutifulness, Studiousness, Insight, and Reflection
Melancholy Vices: Gluttony, Greed, Timidity, Irresoluteness, Despondency, Despair, Oversensitivity, Lack of forgiveness, Self-indulgence, Pessimism, Perfectionism, Cowardice, and Dependency on othersFOR MORE INFO: https://www.fisheaters.com/customstimeafterpentecost8.html
A re-cap of the two key points of the autumn Embertide: A] Joyful gratitude for God’s abundant providence, by savoring and appreciating the simple pleasures of life. B] Placing all trust and dependence on God alone, and thus looking to God as our source of fortitude and perseverance.
Therefore, the two key points of the autumn Embertide were especially designed to temper one’s melancholic humor while maintaining its strengths. It helps grow the industrious beaver into the courageous ox!
*End note: Over history, the saints on occasion reference the four temperaments, or humors, since the idea is carried through the Catholic spiritual traditions. For those of us who have melancholic/guardian tendencies, a spiritual reading lighthouse would be Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. For encouragement and inspiration, saints who tended towards this humor include Apostle St. John the Beloved, St Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and St. Therese of Lisieux.