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Friday 6th March has been designated as the Autumn Ember Day for the Catholic Church in Australia.
The word ‘ember’ in this context does not mean a glowing or smouldering piece of coal or wood; it probably comes from the old English word ymbryne meaning a recurring period.
The early history and original purpose of these days is obscure, but it is likely that they originated in pagan celebrations connected with harvest, vintage and seed time. The tradition was well established in Rome in Rome at the time of Pope Leo in the 5th century because he preached a series of Embertide sermons.
Ember Days were four groups of three days (always Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) of fasting and abstinence observed after the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost Sunday, the feast of the Holy Cross on September 14th and the feast of St Lucy on December 13th. Ember Days corresponded roughly with the beginning of each of the four seasons.
The second Vatican Council retained Ember Days in principle but left it to bishops conferences to determine the time, number, and purpose of Ember and Rogation Days.
(Rogation Days - from the Latin rogare, to ask - originated at times of calamity and were marked by processions, litanies and intercession. The principal rogation procession was eventually associated with intercession for a fruitful harvest. )
Last year, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference decided that the Australian Church should observe the first Fridays in Autumn and Spring (March and September) each year as special days of prayer and penance.
All Fridays are days of penance with fast and abstinence anyway, although our bishops conference has substituted other penitential practices such as prayer, self denial and helping others. The official document on the liturgical year and calendar says this about Ember and Rogation Days:
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 give him public thanks (GNLYC 45).
On one level, these days seek God’s blessing of favourable weather and a fruitful harvest from the land. In good times, it is natural to offer praise and thanksgiving to God for the blessings bestowed on us. In times of drought or flood in Australia, our prayers focus on people and places affected by natural disaster. At all times we need to be attentive to those who are devastated by famine and exploitation.
Ember Days today will focus on the environment, climate change, and the responsibility of our stewardship of the world’s resources. They will help us connect our intercession for favourable conditions with a conversion of heart in relation to our care of the earth. For this reason, the bishops requested that emphasis be placed on doing penance, on fasting and abstaining in connection with these Ember Days.
Fasting and abstaining from meat will encourage us to restraint in our exploitation of natural resources. A day of penance will express our solidarity with those who are disadvantaged, especially those who suffer through famine and the inequitable distribution of the world’s goods.
This year the Spring Ember Day falls on Friday 4th September.