To read part one of this series, click here.
In the last blog post, we looked at the lost devotion called the Agnus Dei and the practice of veiling (the latter is gladly beginning to gain ground again). In this article, I’ll be talking about two forms of fasting and abstinence that have all but disappeared in the general Church. It is true that some groups still practice these but, for the average Catholic, they are no longer on the radar
Before Vatican II gutted it, the Catholic calendar was rich and full of days for feasting and fasting. Some of these days were intimately tied to the rhythm of the seasons.
Ember days occurred near the beginning of each of the four seasons. The English term is a corruption of the Latin name, Quator Tempora, or “four times”. The faithful fasted and prayed on these days to thank God for the gifts of nature, to learn how to use them in moderation, and to pray for the needs of others.
The days of fasting and partial abstinence occurred on a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. In winter, this was after the Feast of St. Lucy; spring, after Ash Wednesday; summer, after Pentecost; autumn, after Holy Cross Day. People remembered these using the Latin mnemonic:
Sant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angaria quarta sequens feria.
Holy Cross, Lucy, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost,
are when the quarter holidays follow.
Or, the even simpler, “Lucy, Ashes, Dove, Cross”.
The Purpose of Embertide
As well as thanking God for the bounty of nature, Ember days were also used to ordain priests, have first Holy Communions, and pray for the souls in Purgatory. Medieval lore even suggested that during Embertide, the souls in Purgatory appeared to those who prayed for them.
The roots of Ember Days can be found in the Old Testament, where a four-fold fast is prescribed to consecrate the whole year to God (Zech. 8:19). In the third century, Roman Christians began incorporating seasonal fasts into their lives, in addition to the practice of fasting twice a week. When the tradition of fasting twice a week faded, the Ember Days remained as a testimony to an ancient practice.
By the twentieth century, however, ordinations were no longer being solely carried out on Ember Days and their role in the lives of Christians was slowly being forgotten. Vatican II could have revitalized the practice. Instead, the Council chose to remove the obligatory nature of the days and leave it to individual bishops. Much like fasting on Fridays (discussed in the next section), the Ember Days subsequently vanished from much of Church life.
In The Didache, a Catholic text that predates some of the New Testament, we’re told that Palestinian Christians fasted every Wednesday and Friday. In fact, this custom was so prevalent in the Church that one Gaelic word for Thursday literally means “the day between fasts”.
For the Eastern Catholic churches, Wednesdays and Fridays remain days of penance. Technically, only Fridays remain days of penance in the Roman Catholic churches. However, it’s little observed.
Over the summer, I was helping with a Catholic vacation Bible school. On Friday, for lunch, they served pizza. It was all pepperoni. If someone from the 1950s walked through the door, or even just a traditionally-minded Catholic, he would have been scandalized at a Catholic function serving meat on a Friday.
Unfortunately, this is very much the norm. I could go on for a while about helping to plan for Catholic events that occur on a Friday and having to remind the coordinator that some people still observe the practice of abstaining from meat.
Still on the Books
Despite common belief, Vatican II never abolished Friday abstinence from meat. The 1983 Code of Canon Law explicitly states that all Christians must do penance “in their own way” and that the penitential times include every Friday of the year and Lent (Canon 1249-50). Canon 1251 takes it a step further, saying abstinence from meat on Fridays must be observed.
So why is it that, at least in the States, pepperoni pizza is served on Fridays at a vacation Bible school and the average Catholic needs to be reminded?
Because, in the “spirit of Vatican II”, the US National Conference of Bishops issued a “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence”. In it, they removed the obligation of abstaining on Fridays, in the hope that people would do it voluntarily.
All American Catholics heard was “you can eat meat on Fridays now” and never looked back. Today, only older Catholics and those of the traditional mindset abstain from meat or perform some other work of penance.
Fasting and Prayer
Fasting and prayer, despite what Vatican II and subsequent Bishop Councils have done, is still an integral part of the Catholic life.
In the Gospel of St. Matthew, the disciples struggle to cast a demon from a child. Christ, though, does it with ease. When the disciples ask why they could not do it, Jesus explains they didn’t have enough faith. Some ancient versions of the manuscript end the encounter with Our Lord saying, “But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting”(17:21, RSVCE).
We live in a world besieged by darkness. It’s in our televisions, movies, books, and culture. Chaos and confusion are the order of the day. We need fasting and prayer more than ever if we hope to bring light to the lost and order to the disarrayed.
In part three, we’ll discuss two more customs gone to the wayside: the rosary and the churching of women.
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