Today, Friday and Saturday we once again celebrate the Ember Days.
The English name for these days, Ember, probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren = a circuit or revolution, from ymb, around, and ryne, a course, running, relating to the annual cycle of the year. The occurrence of the Anglo-Saxon compounds ymbren-tid = Embertide, ymbren-wucan = Ember weeks, ymbren-fisstan = Ember fasts, ymbren-dagas = Ember days, makes this etymology certainly plausible. The word imbren is mentioned in the acts of the Council of Ænham (1009): "the fasts of the four seasons (jejunia quattuor tempora) which are called imbren". It corresponds also with Pope Leo the Great's definition: "fasts of the church distributed through the whole circuit of the year". Others maintain that the term is derived from the Latin quattuor anni tempora = four times of the year, while folk etymology even cites the phrase "may ye remember [the inevitability of death]" as the source. According to J. M. Neale's Essays of Liturgiology (1863), "there is no occasion to seek after an etymology in [the word] embers..."
In the liturgical calendar of the Western Christian churches, Ember Days are four separate sets of three days within the same week, i.e., Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, roughly equidistant in the circuit of the year, set aside for fasting and prayer. These days were also considered especially suitable for the ordination of clergy.
The Ember Weeks, i.e., weeks in which the Ember Days occur, are the week between the 3rd and 4th Sundays of Advent, between the 1st and 2nd Sundays of Lent, the week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and the week beginning on the Sunday after Holy Cross Day (September 14), the liturgical 3rd week of September.
The origins of Ember Days are open to considerable debate. Generally, most agree that the idea for observing Ember Days predates the Christian era, and that since Ember Days have never been observed in the Eastern Churches, the days must have pagan origins in the west. They could possibly have had Celtic origins, linked to the Celtic custom of observing various festivals at three-month intervals: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Historically, the ancient Christian Church often co-opted pagan feasts and reoriented them to suit Christian purposes.
In pagan Rome offerings were made to various gods and goddesses of agriculture in the hope that the deities would provide a bountiful harvest, a rich vintage, or a productive seeding. At first the Church in Rome had fasts in June, September, and December. When the fourth season was added cannot be ascertained, but Pope Gelasius I speaks of all four already in the 5th century. The earliest mention of the seasonal fasts is known from the writings of Philastrius, bishop of Brescia (d. ca. 387). He also connects them with the great Christian festivals.
From Rome this seasonal observance of the Ember days spread to the rest of the Western Church. They were known as the jejunium vernum, aestivum, autumnale and hiemale ("the spring, summer, autumn, and winter fast") so that, to quote Pope Leo I, the law of fasting might apply to every season of the year. In Leo's time, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday were already the days for the observance. In order to make them fasts preparatory to the three great festivals, i.e., Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, a fourth needed to be added "for the sake of symmetry", according to the Encyclopædia Britannica. Thus the autumn Ember Days.
From Rome the Ember days spread gradually and unevenly throughout Western Christendom: first in Britain, interestingly, and later in Gaul (8th cent.), Spain (11th cent.), Italy (16th cent.). Practices appear to have varied considerably, however, and in some cases, quite significantly, the Ember Weeks lost their connection with the Christian festivals altogether. The Eastern Orthodox Church has never observed the Ember Days.
Dr. Pius Parsch notes that "Ember week is a recognized time for spiritual renewal, an occasion to review the past as well as to scan the future. And during these days after Pentecost we can sense more easily the original import and the spirit of joyous gratitude proper to Ember week. Gratitude, not penance, should be the dominant Ember spirit. Even fasting can be an act of thanksgiving! Let us stress positive rather than negative values in our Christian life, cultivate the consciousness of being God's holy children rather than feel ourselves as outcasts and sinners..."
Parsch says that every feast of the Church brings us two blessings: an element of truth revealed and a grace. The Pentecost, first of all, brings Easter to a conclusion. Easter proclaimed the risen Lord Christ, victorious over death and evil, freeing us to recognize God's reign already within us. Pentecost announces the ongoing working out of Christ's redemption through the presence of God the Holy Spirit, the "giver of life". "It is the Holy [Spirit] who transforms the Church...into Christ's mystical Body, into a communion of saints...into Christ continuing His work of teaching and redeeming..." (Dr. Pius Parsch, The Church's Year of Grace, Vol. 3, 1954)