“This kind of evil spirits can be cast forth by nothing but prayer and fasting.”
Lauds antiphon for Ember Wednesday in September
Even though you may have never heard of Ember days, they have been recognized in the Church as far back as the 3rd century. These special days are days of prayer along with fasting and abstinence that occur four times a year at the end of each season. The old way to remember them is a catchy rhyme; lenty, penty, crucy, lucy. They are always on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following Ash Wednesday, and on the same days following Pentecost, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14th, and the feast of St. Lucy on December 13th. It was taught that on these days we are to thank God for the gifts of nature, learn better how to use these gifts in moderation, and to assist the needy. Ordinations of priests and deacons also were done on these special days rather than only at Easter.
Living the Ember Days in the Family
Observing Ember Days in the family, although no longer required by the Church, offers a deeper connection to the traditions of our faith and is a wonderful way to grow in virtue. Here are four ways this beautiful tradition can be lived in the family.
Allow each member of the family to pray in thanksgiving for their favorite part of nature. It can be anything; the sky, the weather, the bugs, the changing colors of the leaves, etc.
This is a great time to learn or to polish our understanding of fasting and abstinence. The rules for fasting in the Church say that only those over the age of 18 are required. But even a small child can learn about fasting by having only 3 grapes instead of 5 or 6. You get the picture, learning moderation. Abstinence is only required by those over the age of 14, but again, even a small child can learn about abstinence by abstaining from a favorite activity or a favorite tv show for the day. Obviously the child must be old enough to understand that what he is doing is showing love for the Lord and His Church. If he is not ready to comprehend that, then it does no good to ask it of him and will only frustrate him and may cause issues later when he is old enough to fast and abstain.
During these days it is a good idea to donate something to someone in need. Take hand-me-down clothes to another family that could use them. Take a bag of diapers to a pregnancy center. Take a handmade card to someone in the nursing home.
Because ordinations to the priesthood were often held on one of the Ember Days, these days are a wonderful time for our families to remember all priests in our prayers.
Restoring the Church Through the Life of the Family
In the current crisis in which we find ourselves ever more deeply drowning, there is truly something that the family can do to bring into the world a life preserver. Mark 9:29 tells us, “This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.” All the petitions in the world, (and they can be effective), all the pickets, all the murmuring among ourselves with friends and family cannot do what simple prayer, fasting, and abstinence can do. Pope St. John Paul II calls the family to participate in the life of the Church not only for the souls of the family but also sharing in the life and mission of the Church. In his document on the family, Familiaris Consortio, he wrote, “Among the fundamental tasks of the Christian family is its ecclesial task: the family is placed at the service of the building up of the Kingdom of God in history by participating in the life and mission of the Church.” We have been called out. We have a huge role to play in the history of the Church in our own domestic churches. The Ember Days are simply one of many wonderful traditions of the Church that will connect us to the Church in her deeply meaningful history. Pope St. John Paul II said it best when he said in the same document mentioned earlier, “Family, become what you are.”
For additional information on Ember Days and on Familiaris Consortio, see the following links: