Sunday, September 13, 2009

Extraordinary Form: The September Ember Days

September 14th brings us to the Triumph or Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This feast day also brings warmth to the hearts of those who are drawn to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (EF). It was on September 14th, 2007 that all priests everywhere were permitted to begin celebration of the usus antiquior without having to seek permission of their bishop. The Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum and the corresponding letter to the world's bishops was penned by Pope Benedict on July 7, 2007.

In the week following the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we celebrate one of four "Ember Weeks" in the year. People have asked me about the "Ember Days" each time they come up but I have not had time to look more deeply at them....until now. I will offer a few thoughts, along with some things pulled from texts I have, and then provide some links for additional reading at the bottom (the one by Michael P. Foley is a "must read").

Some of these texts were written long before the 1962 Missal. However, we must keep in mind that when looking closer at the EF Mass today, while modified in some sense, certain elements go all the way back to when the Mass was standardized under Pope Pius V in 1570. Some things seen in the liturgy using the 1962 Missal have roots which go back even further to Gregory the Great (Pope 590-604). From that time period through 1962, an organic development of the liturgy was visible. It's no wonder that Pope Benedict refers to it as "usus antiquior" or "ancient use".

Four times each year we see Ember days in the 1962 Missal. These are days at the beginning of the four seasons marked for fasting and abstinence. They always happen on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following a particular Sunday in the calendar. The first set of Ember days takes place after the first Sunday of Lent marking spring. The second set happens after Pentecost Sunday (Whitsunday)for Summer. The Sunday after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross marks the autumn Embertide. And finally, there are the Ember days of following the third Sunday of Advent at the beginning of winter. Other sources say that the Ember days of Advent follow the Feast of St. Lucy (December 13th). I've not confirmed whether this is always following the third Sunday.

It was Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) who ordered these for observance throughout the Church. While these days are treated much like a Friday in Lent with fasting, abstinence, prayers and pentitential acts, they are also intended to "thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy"(1)

The liturgical color for Ember days is violet. However, for those Ember days during the Octave of Pentecost, it is red.

For those who regularly assist at daily Mass using the 1962 Missal, there are some noteworthy differences. On Wednesdays and Saturdays of Ember Weeks, "Lessons" are included among the readings. On Wednesdays there is one, and on Saturdays there are five in the 1962 Missal. In older Missals this number was different and varied, depending on the season. For this reason, when reading older texts on the liturgy, we have to consider what Missal was likely in use at the time.

The lessons themselves are particular. Nicholas Gihr writes (keep in mind my note above when reading this which was written in 1902 because Ember Wednesdays only have one lesson now):
"On those days which have Old Testament lessons in a greater number, such as the Wednesdays and Saturdays of Ember Weeks, the earnest spirit of penance is still more deeply stamped. Coming down to us from Apostolic times the Ember days are, according to their original intent and purpose, days of penance, whereon we are expected by prayer, fasting and alms to purify and to sanctify our souls, as well as days of thanksgiving and petition for the blessings of the past or coming season."(2)
Gihr says in his footnote at the bottom of the page:

"Only on the Wednesday of the Pentecost Ember Week are there two new Testament lessons; the reason is, because the penitential character of this Ember Week is in many respects superseded by the festal spirit of the octave. "
Upon examining the lessons more closely the single lesson in each of the four Ember Wednesdays, indeed - the Wednesday after Pentecost stands out as the only one with a reading from the New Testament, specifically, from the Acts of the Apostles. All other lessons, including those on Saturday in Pentecost are from the Old Testament.

Gloria omitted; Flectamus Genua added
As is the case with Lent and Advent - both penitential seasons - the Gloria is omitted on Ember days. Following the Kyrie on Wednesdays and Saturdays of Ember Week, the priest will kneel momentarily and the people respond accordingly (my notes in brackets):

"On certain days, notably the Ember days, there may be a series of lessons, each preceded by a collect, before the Gospel. In this case Dominus vobiscum is said only before the collect(s) preceding the last lesson. Immediately after the Kyrie, eleison, the celebrant, instead of saying Dominus vobiscum, returns to the book and continues as above.

If Flecatmus genua is to be said, as soon as the celebrant has said Oremus [Let us pray] and Flectamus genua [Let us kneel] he lays his hands on the altar and kneels. With hands joined he prays for some time. Then he says Levate [arise], raises and with hands extended says the prayer."
Nicholas Gihr offers further thoughts on the Flectamus genua which provides us with some of the spirituality (emphasis mine in bold):

During the seasons, when the spirit of penance should be more prominent, it is befitting to manifest even exteriorly by genuflecting the interior humility and reverence of the heart. Hence, for example, it is that on the Ember days, as well as on other days that have several lessons and prayers (Wednesday after Laetare Sunday, Vigil of Whitsunday), almost all have the prayers which are introduced by the words Flectamus genua (let us bend the knees) and the answer Levate (arise). Before we address our petitions to the thrice holy God, we will yet abase and humble ourselves profoundly in the consciousness of our guilt and sinfulness, and also to express our repentance and contrition.


From Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution, Paenitemini:

“On rogation and ember days the practice of the Church is to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labour, and to make public thanksgiving. In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the faithful, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan of their celebration. Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year. On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occasions that is best suited to the intentions of the petitioners.”
With this duly noted, I would like to point out that voluntarily assuming forms of penance on any day of the year can be beneficial as an offering to God, much like prayer. A number of people I know observe fasting and abstinence on Ember days voluntarily. Others are wanting to observe them but are unprepared when they suddenly show up for Mass and notice that something is different.

If you think fasting and abstinence or other penitential observances are quaint and childish, then try it for a while and you will likely discover that your will to eat, and to eat what you want is strong. Perhaps you have a greater appetite for video games, television, computer time, sports, or something else. We can have appetites in a variety of ways which are not objectively grave matter. Practicing mortification of lesser appetites (saying "no" to ourselves), helps us to tame the larger appetites. Similarly, throughthe grace of God, focusing on the venial sins and imperfections in our lives through the practice of virtue helps us to win the battle against mortal sins. This makes Ember weeks a great time to go to confession.

Additional Reading:

(1) Mershman, F. (1909). Ember Days. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved September 13, 2009 from New Advent:

(2) Gihr, Nicholas (1902). The Holy Sacrifice Of The Mass Dogmatically, Liturgically and Ascetically Explained. St. Louis: B. Herder (Kessinger Publishing's Rare Re-Prints)

(3)Fortescue, Reid, O'Connell. (2003) The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described.

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