By Michael McKenna, Archdiocesan Master of Ceremonies

I wonder how many Catholics are aware that the first Friday this September is designated as the Spring Ember Day for the Catholic Church in Australia.

In 2008, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) established the first Fridays of Autumn and Spring (March and September) as Ember Days – special days of prayer and penance.

Bearing no relationship to a smouldering piece of wood, the origins of the word “ember” as it is used here lie in a corruption (or contraction) of the Latin phrase Quatuor Tempora, translated simply meaning “four times” – though it is often suggested the origin could also rest with the Old English word ‘ymbren’ meaning a recurring period.

In the Roman Empire, at the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting, religious ceremonies were often performed to implore the help of the various Roman deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding.

An example of how the Church tried to sanctify pagan practices and customs which could be given over for a good purpose, the Ember Day tradition was well established in the Church by the time of Pope Leo I (c. 400 – 10 November 461) who preached a series of Ember-tide sermons.

Commonly celebrated in Europe, particularly in rural areas, Ember days were a feature of the liturgical calendar prior to its revision in 1969.

Proximate to the beginning of each of the four seasons, Ember Days consisted of a group of three days of fasting and abstinence (always Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) following the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost Sunday, the feast of the Holy Cross on 14 September and the feast of St Lucy on 13 December.

In re-establishing the practice, the Australian bishops wished to focus our prayerful attention on our responsibilities as careful stewards of God’s creation and especially the sustainable use of our resources.

The Spring Ember Day in Australia coincides with the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation on 1 September, established by Pope Francis in 2015.

Praying for better stewardship of the Earth and with acts of penance, fasting and abstinence we express our solidarity with the more than 49 million men, women and children in 46 countries around the world who suffer through famine and the inequitable distribution of the world’s goods.

Let us embrace this Spring Ember Day in our parishes and our homes.

Tags: Liturgy