4. The Ember and Rogation Days
From The Liturgical Year: its history & its meaning after the reform of the liturgy by Adolf Adam, English Translation
Copyright 1981 Pueblo Publishing Company, Inc.
“Ember Days” is the name given to the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of four weeks of the year; the weeks come at approximately the beginning of the four seasons. Since the eighth century Rome has spoken of these weeks as the quattor tempora, “four seasons.”
The question of their origin has not yet been answered with full satisfaction. It is certain, however, that the ember days are an institution of the Roman Church which was unknown in the East and was accepted in other Western countries only when the Roman liturgy made its way into them. The oldest report we have of a fast four times a year is to be found in a fourth-century writer, Pontius Maximus, who commends the practice with an appeal to the prophet Zechariah. The prophetic text in question reads: “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 to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts” (8.19).
The next literary witnesses to the practice are the ember week sermons of Pope Leo I (d. 461). These allow us to conclude that the ember fast was a well-established custom. Leo I connects it with the four seasons of the year. In accordance with the teachings of the Holy Spirit (Leo says) the fasting is spread throughout the year in such a way that “we…find (it) in every season. In the spring we fast for forty days before Easter, in summer we fast at Pentecost, in the fall during September, and in winter during December.” The reason for this cycle of fasts is that “we may learn from the constantly recurring annual cycle that we are in constant need of purification.” Leo sees the December fast as also an expression of gratitude for the harvests of that year: “In our pastoral concern for you we tell you…to practice the December fast as a fitting sacrifice of abstinence that is offered to God the giver in gratitude for the now completed harvest of all the fruits of the soil.” Leo regards the ember fasts as originating in apostolic tradition, but also in Old Testament regulations which, unlike the ceremonial laws of the former covenant, continue to be binding moral precepts of the new covenant.
This view of the origin and antiquity of the ember fasts lends credibility to the notice in the Liber pontificalis (a kind of history of the popes that dates from the first half of the sixth century). Here we are told that Pope Callixtus I (217-22) had ordered a fast on three Saturdays of the year at the seasons “of grain, wine and oil.”
The ember fast ended with a vigil celebration during the night between Saturday and Sunday. Leo I mentions this fast no less than fifteen times in his sermons: “On Wednesday and Friday, then, we shall fast, and on Saturday celebrate the vigils at the church of the holy Apostle Peter.” Because this nocturnal liturgy was regarded as falling on Sunday, the Sunday had no further liturgy and was denominated a dominca vacans (empty or open Sunday). But as the vigil liturgy was moved forward to an increasingly early hour until it was finally celebrated in the morning hours of Saturday (we saw this development in connection with the Easter Vigil), a liturgy of the Mass was provided for these previously “empty” Sundays, with the preceding ember day Masses supplying most of the texts.
Since the end of the fifth century at the latest, the ember days have been the preferred dates for ordinations, with Wednesday and Friday serving as the days for presenting and examining the candidates, and the ordinations taking place during the virgil liturgy prior to Sunday.
Various hypotheses have been suggested for explaining the real origin of the Roman ember days. According to G. Morin they go back to the three pagan Roman harvest festivals that were celebrated in gratitude for the grain harvest, the vintage and (in December) the sowing. In support of this hypothesis is the fact that Rome originally had only three ember weeks. According to L. Duchesne, however, the ember days originated in the Roman custom of fasting in connection with the stations every Wednesday and Friday and, later on, every Saturday as well. Once this weekly three-day fast was dropped, the ember fast was introduced as a kind of substitute.
Recent research has looked for the origin of the ember days in corresponding Old Testament regulations on fasting. Here Zechariah 8;19 and Joel 2.12-19 would have played an important role — a supposition that can find support especially in the sermons of Leo I.
As I mentioned earlier, the custom of ember day fasting spread with the acceptance of the Roman liturgy. Important factors in this diffusion were the sending of Abbot Augustine and his monks to England under Gregory I, the missionary work of Boniface who looked so much to Rome for guidance, and the efforts of Pepin and Charlemagne. For hundreds of years there was some uncertainty about the dates for the individual ember weeks; this perplexity was finally eliminated by Pope Gregory VII at the Roman synod of 1078. Since then, the rule has been that the ember days begin on the Wednesday after the first Sunday of Lent, after Pentecost, after the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14), and after the feast of St. Lucy (December 13).
If we wish to sum up the meaning of the ember days in the light of this historical survey, we may say that they represented a special ascetical effort at the beginning of each of the four seasons. This effort took the form especially of the triad already recommended in the Old Testament: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. At the same time, the days were days of thanksgiving for the various seasonal harvests; from the fifth century on they also served for the preparation and conferral of holy orders. In our own times they have been revitalized to some extent, and in some countries, as days of prayer for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
In the reorganization of the liturgical year that followed on the Second Vatican Council, the church has retained the ember days in principle but has left their date and form to the episcopal conferences so that better account can be taken of “various regions and the different needs of the people.” The Roman Commentary on the General Norms touches on some important points for making these days meaningful to our contemporaries:
In our time, when all human beings are fully aware of the serious problems of peace, justice and hunger, the exercises of penance and Christian charity that recur with each of the four seasons need to be given back their original value and power. In each region, therefore, and in the light of local circumstances and customs, and suitable way should be found of celebrating an ember week liturgy and dedicating it especially to the ministry of Christian love.
Ember Days and Thanksgiving for the Harvest
If we survey the thematic content the ember day celebrations have had in the course of history, it is noticeable that especially on the ember days of autumn and December thanksgiving for the various annual harvests played an important part. This suggests that the yearly thanksgiving for the harvest should really be connected with the autumn ember days; the Sunday after the ember days would be the Sunday of thanksgiving for the harvest. In this way the motif of gratitude for the earth’s fruits could be organically integrated into the liturgical year as the latter has evolved historically.
It has correctly been pointed out that in the Christian understanding of “feast” there can in fact be no independent feast of thanksgiving for the harvest, since the all-inclusive basis for the Christian celebration is the saving action of Christ and since the latter becomes a festal source of salvation first and foremost in the eucharist. “The real time of festivity for Christians is the celebration of the eucharist. The liturgy is the time and place of communion with Christ in its fullest and closest form…Therefore the primordial feast of the Christian world is the regular communal celebration of the eucharist on Sundays.
On the other hand, Christians too realize that they are dependent on what goes on in our earthly natural world, and subject to the prosperity and dangers this brings. Consequently “the motifs proper to the natural human religious spirit retain their vitality for Christians.” For these reasons joy and thanksgiving for the harvest are justified in the life of Christians and have a claim to be recognized in the Christian festal celebration (I have already made the same point in connection with the celebration of the new year, cf. above). Thanksgiving for the harvest should find expression in the celebration of the autumn ember days and, on the part of the entire community, on the following Sunday.
Among its Masses for Various Needs and Occasions the new Missal has one for “After the Harvest.” The presidential prayers not only offer thanks for the gifts received but also point out the duty of using these for the good of all (first opening prayer). They ask that “the seeds of charity and justice (may) also bear fruit in our hearts” (second opening prayer) and that in addition to “the fruits of the earth,” “the power of this saving mystery (may) bring us even greater gifts.” The lectionary has special readings for this Mass, but in many cases the Sunday readings could also be used. The homilist might take as his point of departure the new prayers of praise and thanksgiving (Berakah) now used at the preparation of the gifts, since in them we praise God for the gifts of bread and wine, for the produce of soil and vine, and for the fruits of human toil.
The Easter season saw the development, in Christian antiquity, of two celebrations which by their seriousness contrast to some extent with the joy of the fifty-day period. Amalarius of Metz (death ca. 850) was so surprised that he exclaimed: “I am amazed that our Church should have allowed this fast to become customary . . . when the holy Fathers tell us . . . that there is to be no fasting during these fifty days!”61 He is referring to the rogation processions (and Masses) on April 25, feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, and on the three days before Ascension.
The older procession (litania maior, “greater litany”) on April 25 has been suppressed in the reorganization of the liturgical year. The Commentary on the General Norms justifies the suppression on the grounds that the procession “originated in a purely local custom of the Church of the city of Rome: by instituting such a procession the Roman pontiffs wished to substitute a Christian ritual for an ancient pagan practice.”62 The Commentary on the new calendar observes: “The greater litany is abolished, since it has practically the same object as the lesser litanies or rogations.”63
The old pagan Roman custom which the procession replaced was the Robigalia, celebrated on April 25 in honor of the god Robigus, “Mildew” (or the goddess Robigo, “Rust”) in order to ward off mildew from teh grain, a blight widespread in antiquity. It seems that as late as the fourth century the practice of processing around the fields (Ambaravalia) still had a strong hold on the people. The Roman Church (in the person of Pope Liberius?) sought to suppress it by means of a Christian counterpart. For not only did the date of the greater litany coincide with that of the Robigalia but so, to a great extent, did the route taken by both processions. Pope Gregory I devoted special care to the celebration of this major rogation day.64
The lesser litanies (= more recently established intercessory processions) or rogation days originated in Gaul. There, in 469 Bishop Mamertus of Vienna ordered that a fast and special intercessory processions be held on the three days before Ascension Thursday because of the exceptional calamities that had been afflicting the city (earthquake, poor harvests).65 The practice was quickly adopted by other diocese and finally prescribed for all of Gaul by the Synod of Orleans in 511. The processions were first introduced into Rome under Pope Leo III (died 816), although without the fast that was their obligatory concomitant in Gaul.66
The new calendar has kept these lesser rogation days and describes their significance, together with that of the ember days, as follows: “On rogation and ember days the Church publicly thanks the Lord and prays to him for the needs of men, especially for the productivity of the earth and for man’s labor.” 67 Decisions regarding time and manner are left to the episcopal conferences.68
Practice of Ember and Rogation Days
Throughout the world today practice varies widely. Among the English-speaking episcopal conferences some have issued few guidelines while others have made full statements such as the formulation for England and Wales entitled Days of Special Prayer, which was approved by their Episcopal Conference on October 18, 1972.
In determining such days for England and Wales it seems preferable to abandon all distinction between ember and rogation days, and to speak simply of days of special prayer.
The Episcopal Conference of England and Wales has determined that the intentions for such days in England and Wales shall be as follows:
For world peace
For Christian unity
For the needy and the hungry in the world
For God’s blessing on human work
For vocations to the priesthood and the religious life
In thanksgiving for the harvest or for the fruits of human works
Days of prayer for several of these intentions have been observed widely throughout England and Wales for some time; it is very suitable that from now onwards they be observed as liturgical days.69