Need an Advent Penance? Meet the Ember Days
The beloved hymn, Joy to the World, invites the world to “receive her King” on Christmas Day. In order to receive Him, the song implies that our hearts must first “prepare Him room.”
But how do we truly ready ourselves for the Nativity of Jesus? How do we prepare Him room? How do we create space in the manger of our hearts for the Newborn King to rest His sweet head?
The season of Advent has only just begun, and before we get caught up in the swirling frenzy of the holiday rush, let’s choose to live Advent the way it is intended:
Traditionally, Advent includes an element of penance, a fast before the feast of Christmas. This gives us the opportunity to release the physical, mental, and emotional clutter in our lives in order to arrive on that Holy Night ready to receive the Newborn King.
If we pause to think of the Nativity scene and the simple manger, open and ready to receive the miracle of the Incarnation, we want our hearts to mirror that manger. We want our souls to be free and welcoming so we can enter Christmas wholly devoted to adoring Baby Jesus.
Advent’s Ember Days offer a simple, practical, and spiritual plan to clear the clutter of our hearts, minds, and homes, in order to renew our focus on Christ’s coming this Christmas.
What are the Ember Days?
The Ember Days are a time-honored practice of penitential prayer that take place four times per year, in conjunction with the four natural seasons. Ember Days are rooted in the Old Testament tradition of fasting four times per year:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah: therefore love truth and peace. // Zechariah 8:19
From the Latin quatuor tempora, which means “four times,” Ember Days date back to the third century when Pope Callixtus instituted a Church-wide fast for plentiful harvests three times per year. By the fourth century, a fourth fast was added. And the current format for Ember Days was prescribed by Pope Gregory VII, in the 11th century.
- Winter // between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent
- Spring // between the first and second Sundays of Lent
- Summer // between Pentecost and Trinity Sundays
- Fall // after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Three Days of Fasting, Four Times Per Year
Each set of Ember Days includes three days of fasting—Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday—in remembrance of Christ’s Passion.
- Wednesday // Christ’s betrayal by Judas
- Friday // Christ’s crucifixion
- Saturday // Christ’s entombment
A Joyful Fasting
Similar to Lent, but on a smaller scale, the Ember Days offer us a time of spiritual renewal, a chance to reset and refocus our priorities.
Like fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Ember Days allow one primary meal and two snacks, which when combined do not equal a full meal. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, meat is permitted in the primary meal, but on Fridays, abstaining from meat is required.
However, unlike the solemnness of Lenten fasting, Ember Days’ fasting is joyful and thankful. The Church counts her blessings and rejoices in the gifts of nature, especially crops that contribute to the administration of the Sacraments.
- Winter // olives and oil, used for anointing the sick
- Spring // flowers and bees, used for altar and Baptismal candles
- Summer // wheat, used for the Holy Eucharist
- Spring // grapes, used for the Precious Blood
Pray for Priests, Vocations
Because of the link between the harvests and the Sacraments, the prayer intentions of Ember Days focus on priestly and religious vocations. This correlates with the apostolic tradition of ordaining new priests after a period of prayer and fasting:
Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. // Acts 13:3
As a result, for centuries, priestly ordinations took place during Ember Days, in addition to the Easter season.
Keep the Ember Days
All Catholics observed the Ember Days until they were removed from the liturgical calendar in 1966. While they are no longer mandatory, many Catholics continue to keep them, because they assist in bringing fasting into our prayer.
The Ember Days remind us that Jesus taught that some petitions can only be answered by prayer and fasting (see Mark 9:28).
Advent’s Ember Days
As noted above, Advent Embertide begins the Wednesday after Gaudete Sunday. (In 2021, the Advent Ember Days are December 15th, 17th, and 18th.) The rose candle is already lit, reminding us that Christ is coming very soon.
Hopefully, by this point in Advent, our busy preparations of shopping, wrapping, baking, and decorating are nearly complete. And we can settle into deeper preparation within our hearts.
Even within the liturgical calendar, we notice that more feast days occur at the beginning of Advent than toward the end. As we near Christ’s birth, even the Church grows more silent and still, as if she is holding her breath, waiting for the miracle about to take place.
Thus, Advent Embertide invites us to slow down and turn interiorly toward preparing Him room.
Advent’s Ember Days do not require a lot. They are much more about being present, still, and prayerful.
Ways to Observe the Advent Ember Days
Here are a few simple ways to enter into the Ember Days of Advent.
Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just: let the earth open and bud forth a Savior. // Isaiah 45:80
- Wednesday: Luke 1:26-38
- Friday: Luke 1:37-47
- Saturday: Luke 3:1-6
- Prepare simple, nourishing, and meatless meals
- Abstain from sugary treats
- Log off of social media
- Refrain from listening to Christmas music; settle into silence
- Make donations to a local food shelf or homeless shelter
- Go to Confession
Additional Resources for Ember Days
- Ways to Observe the Ember Days
- Advent Music
- The historical roots of fasting for vocations
- Prayers for the Ember Days
As we embark on this new liturgical season of Advent, the world seems evermore chaotic, and all of the holiday hype can make us feel frenzied. Let’s resist what the world offers. Instead, let’s choose to slow down, enter into the quiet and stillness of Advent, and truly prepare Him room.
Three simple days of prayer and fasting will guide the way.
This was originally published on the Blessed Is She blog.