"Big Four" Highlights


Ember Encouragement

Fathers can lead a movement to restore traditional devotion

By Jason Godin

Sit beside a fire with family and friends long enough and you’re sure to enjoy the sight of embers, smoldering hot fragments of wood or coal. They provide brilliant oases of orange within an otherwise dreary landscape of gray ash. They can burn for a long time, provided one doesn’t bury or extinguish them.

The centuries-old traditions of the Catholic Church also contain embers. A traditional form of penance practiced as early as the fifth century, Ember Days are four separate sets of Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in the same calendar week reserved for fasting and prayer. Embertides – the term for the set of three days – occur seasonally, between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent, the first and second Sundays of Lent, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and the third liturgical week of September.

Sadly, most Catholics today have never heard of Ember Days, since they don’t appear on most parish calendars, or else they think of them as practices jettisoned by the Second Vatican Council. Yet even if the universal Church does not promote Ember Days, the faithful can still observe them privately in their hearts and in their homes. Indeed, it seems to me that Ember Days are worth restoring because they offer some tools for fathers today trying to build their families on solid foundations of faith.

For one, they remind a dad to set aside specific times for interior reflection, periods to pause and rekindle the basics of faith within the broader busy-ness of life that burns around him. Embers can be coaxed into roaring fire; so too, can embers of faith when prodded in prayer. Where contemporary culture suggests heaven on earth involves instantly sharing our every thought with others and immediately satisfying our baser instincts at whatever cost, Ember Days transform prayer into spiritual kindling, with enough supply to last a lifetime and share with others.

Ember Days also prompt fathers to practice endurance in times of trial. The Catechism of the Catholic Church proposes types of action one can take in this regard. Seasons and days of penance offer “intense moments” that are “particularly appropriate” for forms of “voluntary self-denial” such as fasting, almsgiving, as well as charitable and missionary works (CCC 1438). Choosing denial over indulgence builds the will for greater spiritual and corporal works.

Ember Days are a practice worth reviving. As with any Church tradition that has fallen out of use, it will take a great amount of effort on our part, through self-sacrifice and a determined sense that days distinguished outside of Lent for fasting and prayer are valuable, needed and wanted. In a world where ideas once rightly reduced to the ash heap of history are finding new life in our secular culture, our observance of Ember Days could provide the light of faith we need to survive the darkest of our days, and enkindle a new dawn of faith.

Jason Godin, a veteran Catholic journalist, writes from Minnesota.