The Ember Days and the Holy Priesthood

The solemn fast of the three days in Ember Week seems to have been originally peculiar to the Church in Rome, whence it was afterwards borrowed by the other Latin dioceses. Pope St Leo I explains its meaning clearly, especially on the occasion of the December fasts, when he remarks that, at the end of the year, and before beginning to draw upon the winter resources, (northern hemisphere), it is very fitting that we should dedicate the firstfruits to the divine Providence by a freewill offering of abstinence and almsgiving.


In this case there was a further motive. An ancient tradition reserved the ordinations of priests and deacons to the month of December, and the faithful, following a custom introduced by the Apostles themselves, felt constrained to unite with the bishop in prayer and fasting, in order to call down from God an abundance of priestly gifts upon the heads of those newly chosen to minister at the altar.

In truth the highest interests of Christian people are bound up, to a great extent, with the holiness of the clergy; and since Holy Scripture teaches us that the most terrible chastisement which almighty God inflicts upon perverse nations is to give them pastors and leaders of their own kind, it is evident that the ordination of the sacred ministers is not a matter which concerns merely the bishop and his seminary, but one which is of supreme importance to the whole Catholic body.

For this reason the Acts of the Apostles record the solemn fasts and public prayers which preceded the ordination of the first seven deacons and the mission of Sts. Paul and Barnabas as Apostles to the Gentiles; and to-day, after so many centuries, this rule has undergone no substantial relaxation. The rites and their outward setting are, perhaps, somewhat simpler now than they were at the height of the Middle Ages in Rome, but the fasts, the preparatory stations, and the solemn prayers of the Church and her faithful still precede in their due order, the sacramental imposition of hands upon those elected to the priesthood.

The station Church of Ember Wednesday in Advent, following the custom for Ember Wednesdays, is at the Basilica of St. Mary Major’s, in order that the new priests may be placed under the heavenly patronage of her whom the Fathers of the Church sometimes call the Virgin-priest, in whose temple the Incarnate Word himself was anointed priest by the divine Paraclete. Formerly the procession of clergy and people, chanting the Litany, went from St Peter in Vinculis to St.Mary Major’s by way of the Suburra, the Viminal and the Esquiline. After the Collect on entering the Basilica, one of the keepers of the papal archives announced to the people from the ambo the names of those about to be ordained. Auxiliante Domino et Salvatore nostro Jesu Christo, eligimus has N.N. diaconos in presbyteratum. Si igitur est aliquis qui contra hos viros aliquid scit de causa criminis, absque dubitatione exeat et dicat; tantum, memento Communionis suae. (By the help of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, we have elected these deacons N.N. for the holy priesthood. If, therefore, anyone knows of any ill repute that these are guilty of, let him come and say it, …)

These solemn proclamations took the place at Rome of the ancient custom, very widely spread in other parts, of popular suffrage (or vote) at ordinations. In some localities the people were consulted, with the idea that they would yield obedience more readily to those whom they themselves had chosen as their pastors. Rome, however, from very early days, so we learn from the Epistle of St Clement to the Corinthians, looked upon this privilege as being too dangerous and compromising, easily open to misinterpretation and not in keeping with the divinely authoritative character of the sacred hierarchy. The sacred ministers should be chosen by Christ himself through his Apostles and bishops, and not by popular vote, as if it were a matter of electing public officials in the Forum. Rome, therefore, in her sacred ordinations, granted a part to the people, honourable indeed, but secondary and merely confirmatory; they could make a deposition, that is, concerning any of the candidates, if they knew them to be legally guilty in any matter, and consequently unworthy. It is just this which the Apostle requires when he writes to Timothy, that it is necessary for those chosen to the priestly office to have testimonium . . . bonum ab his qui foris sunt, ut non in approbrium incidant. (Tim. 3; 7)

Originally, in Rome, and many other Western churches followed this example, there were three fast-days in the week; that is to say, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and during the night preceding the Sunday the nocturnal vigils were held in preparation for the Sunday sacrifice. Here we have the primitive manner of sanctifying the Christian week, as contrasted with that of the Pharisees, which had only two fast-days; Mondays and Thursdays. As time went on, this strict evangelical rule was relaxed, and that which was at first the customary rite for the weekly cycle ended by becoming, in the fourth century, the peculiar feature of certain special weeks; i.e., those of the three solemn fasts of June, September and December, which took the place of the old Latin feriae of harvest, vintage and the drawing off of the new wine.

A centuary or so later, a fourth time was added, that of March. The following distich specifies the weeks for the observance of the Ember Days according to the rules which were finally fixed in 1078 by Pope St. Gregory VII: “Post Luciam, Cineres, post sanctum Pneuma Crucemque Tempora dat quattuor – feria quarta sequens.” (The Embertides, therefore, begin on the Wednesdays following the feast of St. Lucy (December 13), Ash Wednesday, Pentecost and the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14)). Pope John XXIII (1962) modified the first and the fourth of these times. It is now always in the third week of Advent, which may or may not be the Wednesday following St. Lucy’s feast day, and the Wednesday following the thrid Sunday of September, which again, may or may not follow the feast of the Holy Cross.

In that golden age of the sacred Liturgy the Eucharist was the true central point of Catholic worship, the setting of every other religious act. It was with a view to its consecration that the new priests were ordained and the Church and Her people prostrated themselves in fast and abstinence. By this we may remember the importance and beauty of the Ember fasts.