Normally, as things burn, embers turn to ashes, but we're at the one time of the year when ashes come before embers--at least in the Catholic Church's liturgical calendar. The Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent is Ash Wednesday, but the Wednesday after the first Sunday of Lent is an Ember Wednesday, and that's what many Catholics, particularly in Europe, celebrate this week.
For centuries, the Ember Days marked the change of the seasons, both liturgical and natural. On the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of an Ember Week, Catholics would fast and abstain from meat at all but one meal each day (and during the Lenten Ember Days, they would abstain from meat at all meals). In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Church left the decision of whether to continue to celebrate the Ember Days up to each national bishops' conference, and the U.S. bishops decided to make their celebration optional.
Still, especially now that the Lenten fast is confined to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and Lenten abstinence applies only to Fridays, celebrating the Ember Week during Lent is a very good way to get our Lenten regimen off to a good start--to start a fire from the embers, so to speak.
You can learn more about the Ember Days in The Tradition of Ember Days in the Catholic Church.
More on Ember Days:
- Reader Question: What Are Ember Days?
- Reader Question: More on Ember Days
- Reader Question: Confusion About Ember Days