1902 Encyclopedia > Ember Days and Ember Weeks

Ember Days and Ember Weeks




EMBER DAYS AND EMBER WEEKS, the four seasons set apart by the Western Church for special prayer and fasting, and the ordination of clergy, known in the mediaeval church as quatuor témpora, or jejunia quatuor temporum. The Ember weeks are the complete weeks next following Holy Cross Day (September 14), St Lucy's Day (December 13), the first Sunday in Lent, and Whitsun Day. The Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays of these weeks are the Ember days distinctively, the following Sundays being the days of ordination. These dates are given in the following memorial distich with a frank in-difference to quantity and metre—

Vult Crux, Lucia, Cinis, Charismata dia Quod det vota pia quarta sequens feria.

The word Ember is of uncertain derivation. We may at once dismiss, as founded only on an accidental similarity of sound, that from the " embers" or ashes erroneously assumed to have been used at these seasons in token of humiliation. Other more probable derivations are from the Anglo-Saxon ymh-ren, a circuit or revolution (from ymb, around, and rennen, to run); or by process of agglu-tination and phonetic decay, from the Latin quatuor témpora. Those who advocate this latter derivation appeal to the analogous forms by which these seasons are desig-nated in some of the Teutonic languages, e.g.—German, quatember; Dutch, quatertemper; Danish, hvatember ; Swedish, tamper-dagar. But the occurrence of the Anglo-Saxon compounds ymbren-tid, ymbren-wucan, ymbren-faes-tan, ymbren-dagas, for Ember tide, weeks, fasts, days, favours the former derivation, which is also confirmed by the use of the word imh-en in the Acts of the council of iEnham, 1009 A.D. ("jejunia quatuor témpora qua? imbren vocant"). It corresponds also with Pope Leo the Great's definition, "jejunia ecclesiastica per totius anni circulum distributa."

The observance of the Ember days is confined to the Western Church, and had its origin as an ecclesiastical ordinance in Borne. They were probably at first merely the fasts preparatory to the three great festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. A fourth was subse-quently added, for the sake of symmetry, to make them correspond with the four seasons, and they became known as the jejunium vernum, cestivum, a,utumnale, and hiemale, so that, to quote Pope Leo's words, "the law of abstinence might apply to every season of the year," An earlier men-tion of these fasts, as four in number—the first known—is in the writings of Philastrius, bishop of Brescia, in the middle of the 4th century. He also connects them with the great Christian festivals (De Ilosres., 119). In Leo's time, 440-461 A.D., Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday were already the days of special observance. From Rome the Ember days gradually spread through the whole of Western Christendom. Uniformity of practice, however, in this particular was of somewhat slow growth. Neither in Gaul nor Spain do they seem to have been generally recognized much before the 8th century. Their introduction into Britain appears to have been earlier, dating from Augustine, 597 A.D., acting under the authority of Gregory the Great. The general period of the four fasts being roughly fixed, the precise date appears to have varied considerably, and. in some cases to have lost its connection with the festivals altogether. The Ordo Bomanus fixes the spring fast in the first week of March (then the first month); the summer fast in the second -week of June; the autumnal fast in the third week of September ; and the winter fast in the com-plete week next before Christmas eve. Other regulations pre-vailed in different countries, until the inconveniences arising from the want of uniformity led to the rule now observed being laid down under Pope Urban II. as the law of the church, in the councils of Placentia and Clermont, 1095 A.D.

The present rule which fixes the ordination of clergy in the Ember weeks cannot be traced further back than the time of Pope Gelasius, 492-496 A.D. In the early ages of the church ordinations took place at any season of the year whenever necessity required. Gelasius is stated by ritual writers to have been the first who limited them to these particular times, the special solemnity of the season being in all probability the cause of the selection. The rule once introduced commended itself to the mind of the church, and its observance spread. We find it laid down, in the pontificate of Archbishop Egbert of York, 732-766 A.D., and referred to as a canonical rule in a capitulary of Charles the Great, and it was finally established as a law of the church in the pontificate of Gregory VII., c. 1085.

Authorities : Muratori, Dissert, de Jejun. Quat. Temp., c. vii., anecdot. torn. ii. p. 262; Bingham, Antiq. of the Christ. Church, bk. iv. chap. vi. §6, bk. xxi. chap. ii. § 1-7; Binterim, Denkwürdigkeiten, vol. v. part 2, pp. 133 ff.; Augusti, Sandbuch der Christlich. Archäol., vol. i. p. 465, iii. 486. (B. V.)








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