From the Pastor: Ember Days are Here Again!
Ember Days are three days of partial (full on Friday) abstinence and fasting. We celebrate them on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday four times a year, near the beginning of each season (weather seasons, not liturgical seasons!). The September Ember Days fall (a seasonal pun) next week. Wednesday, September 21, is St. Matthew’s feast day, and, although I had it printed in the parish calendar that we celebrate the Ember Day with a commemoration of St. Matthew, I got it wrong. We are to celebrate the apostle’s feast day with a commemoration of the Ember Day. The “partial abstinence” of that day and the following Saturday means that one may eat meat only at the main meal of the day. The “fasting” of all three days means that there is only one meal allowed (usually taken in the evening in our culture) and, if necessary to sustain strength or health, up to two small meatless collations, or snacks, earlier in the day. These collations are to be, if measured together, smaller than the full, regular-sized meal. Of course, these days are only found on the old calendars, not the current Novus Ordo calendar, and there is now no mandate for keeping these days of fast and abstinence. But for those of you who are striving to revive lost/forgotten/stolen Catholic traditions, I highly recommend that you incorporate these small penances into your week.
Last year I wrote more extensively about the ember days and how they were dropped from the Universal liturgical calendar with the expectation that they would be incorporated into the local calendars of various countries, something that, at least in the USA, was, sadly, never done. Since my weekly bulletin articles are so memorable, I assume that none of you need a refresher in that part of the history of Ember Days. So this year I will fabricate a completely different history of the Ember Days and present it to you as if it were the true liturgical story of bygone times.
Ember Days started, surprisingly enough, with embers. Embers are, by definition, “the smoldering remains of a fire.” There are many stories of fire and, hence, embers, in both the Old and New Testaments, and Scripture scholars are at odds as to which of them was the precursor to the first Ember Days. The most obvious beginning was from the days of Adam and Eve. The ThermoGenesis scholars believe that, while Eve ate the forbidden apple fresh from the tree, she baked the rest of it into a pie and gave it to Adam to eat, for only a man of very low character (such as we have in abundance today) would have betrayed God for a half-eaten piece of fruit, but for a “sinfully delicious pie,” well, even today’s advertisers know that that sounds mighty tempting. When they got kicked out of the Garden of Eden they failed to extinguish the cooking fire and the whole place burned. (You didn’t think the angel’s sword burst into flames on its own, did you?) The Ember Days were then set as commemorations of the end of Paradise on Earth, as they returned quarterly to reminisce and do penance at the charred remains of their formerly glorious home.
A competing group of Biblical scholars, the Exodousers, claim that a more likely source is the Burning Bush wherein God spoke with Moses. Moses secretly stuffed some of the non-combustible fire in his toga pockets to keep with him as he traveled to the Promised Land, for he knew that nights got cold in the desert. Another snake plays a prominent role in this theory, as well, for some of the desert snakes swallowed flames from his secret fire, thus getting the name “fiery serpents” which later bit the complaining people. This explanation is doubtful, however, since no embers are left over from a flame that does not consume the material upon which it rests.
Yet a third oftentimes defended position is that the Ember Days began with Elias (Elijah in some new-fangled translations). Two competing groups form this one general group. The first one, the Charcoalites, say that these days started with Elias calling down fire from Heaven upon the sacrificial bullock offered on Mount Charcoal (since changed to Mt. Carmel) when the prophets of Baal were unable to do so while calling upon their sleepy or vacationing gods. The Rhodeapple Scholars, while championing Elias, believe that the fiery horses and fiery chariot that swept him up in the whirlwind left behind burning embers, from which the beginnings of these days of penance began. It is not surprising that these two groups disagree, for they cannot even come to a consensus as to whether these two histories are found in the 2nd and 4th books of Kings or in the 1st and 3rd.
The last of the so-called scholars, a very extinguished group indeed, which is known as “The New World Smolder,” believe that the Ember Days didn’t have any true beginnings in the Old Testament but rather sprang from a beach barbeque after the Resurrection. When the apostles brought the miraculous catch of fish ashore, Jesus invited them to eat, for He had fish cooking on hot coals. It is thought that the embers of this fire might have been the inspiration for St. Peter to institute Ember Days in the early Church, for he certainly led the others in setting the world on fire. Our diocesan Patron, St. Jude, to this day does penance as a living ember (the Pentecost flame still atop his head) to make up for those who don’t keep the Ember Day penance.
I hope I didn’t re-ignite any old controversies by kindling your interest in these fantastical tales of scholarly debacle, I mean debate.
With prayers for your holiness,
Rev. Fr. Edwin Palka