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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Confusion About Ember Days

By September 17, 2009

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When life gives you lemons, make a Reader Question, and then use the lemons for a nice Greek Lemon Garlic Chicken (With Potatoes).

Readers may have noticed that I've been featuring information about the Ember Days on the top of the front page of the Catholicism GuideSite this week. The Ember Days, which come around four times each year, celebrate both the changing of the seasons and the liturgical cycles of the Church. Traditionally, they were celebrated with fasting (no food between meals) and half-abstinence, meaning that meat was allowed at one meal per day.

With the revision of the Church's liturgical calendar in 1969, the celebration of the Ember Days was left up to the discretion of each national conference of bishops. The bishops of the United States decided not to celebrate them, but individual Catholics can still choose to.

And so I've provided information on the Ember Days to encourage you to do just that. But there's a problem. Several months ago, when I scheduled this information to appear, I scheduled it for the wrong week. The September (or Michaelmas) Embertide (as the celebration of the Ember Days is known) falls next week.

The error wasn't simply one of reading the calendar incorrectly. As one reader e-mailed me (yes, there actually is a reader question in this Reader Question!):

Many websites explain that Michaelmas Embertide falls "the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after the feast of the Holy Cross."
Nonetheless, my TAN calendar shows the 2009 Michael Embertide as September 23, 25 and 26 (9, 11 and 12 days after September 14).
What's going on?

The problem is that, over the years, we Catholics have developed shorthand ways of calculating the dates of the Ember Days. Thus, for September, it became common to say that the Ember Days were "the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after the feast of the Holy Cross" (September 14).

But the September Ember Days are actually supposed to fall on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the third Sunday in September. In other words, while they technically fall after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, they aren't tied directly to it.

Still, up until 1962, calculating the dates of the Ember Days in relation to the Feast of the Holy Cross worked. But in 1962, Pope John XXIII introduced some minor changes into the liturgical calendar. One of those changes had to do with how the Church decides which Sunday is the first Sunday of the month.

Wait, what? Isn't that obvious? The first Sunday of the month is the first Sunday that falls in a given month, right?

Well, yes—since 1962. Up until then, for the purposes of the liturgical calendar of the Church, the first Sunday of the month was considered to be the Sunday closest to the calends (the first day of the month).

Thus, in 2009, the calends of September (September 1) fell on a Tuesday, so the Sunday closest to it was August 30. Thus, until 1962, the Church would have considered August 30 the first Sunday of September, and September 13 would have been the third Sunday. That would have placed the Ember Days on September 16, 18, and 19—in other words, in this week.

Since 1962, however, the liturgical calendar follows the common method of determining the first Sunday of the month. Thus, in 2009, the first Sunday of September was September 6; the third Sunday will be September 20; and the Ember Days will fall on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of next week—September 23, 25 and 26.

And now, if you'll pardon me, I've got some Lemon Garlic Chicken to cook.

More on Ember Days:

If you have a question that you would like to be featured as part of our Reader Questions series, please send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

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September 17, 2009 at 4:00 pm
(1) Lynnette says:

Wow… sounds a tad confusing, Scott, but thanks for spelling it out for us! I am new to the Church (although baptized as a toddler but didn’t return Home until last year) and have not heard of Ember Days until now. Off to brush up on my Catholic history regarding the Ember Days.
Thanks again! :o )

September 22, 2009 at 3:11 pm
(2) Shawn says:

Thank you; this is a very useful article!

May 29, 2010 at 12:32 am
(3) Michael Ezzo says:

Scott, you never fail to have the answer; thank you abundantly! And don’t feel bad, Lynnette : neither did I know of Ember Days (or many many other liturgical events) until after coming back the to the Church, decades after my apostasy. Another thing I came to learn was that while meatless Fridays were abolished by Paul VI, the obligation for some penitential/charitable act on Fridays is still technically in force.

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