23 May Whit Embertide
Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost Sunday are known as “Whit Embertide,” and they come anywhere between mid-May and mid-June, at the beginning of Summer (June, July, August). The Lessons read during the Masses connect the Pentecost with the Old Testament Feast of Firstfruits.
The Gospel readings focus on Our Lord speaking of Himself as the Heavenly Bread (John 6:44-52), healing the man lowered down through the roof , telling the Pharisees that it is easier to say “Thy sins are forgiven” than to say “Arise and walk!” (Luke 5:17-26), and healing Simon Peter's mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-44). (1)
Four times a year, the Church sets aside three days to focus on God through His marvelous creation. These quarterly periods take place around the beginnings of the four natural seasons 1 that “like some virgins dancing in a circle, succeed one another with the happiest harmony,” as St. John Chrysostom wrote (see Readings below).
These four times are each kept on a successive Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and are known as “Ember Days,” or Quatuor Tempora, in Latin. The first of these four times comes in Winter, after the the Feast of St. Lucy; the second comes in Spring, the week after Ash Wednesday; the third comes in Summer, after Pentecost Sunday; and the last comes in Autumn, after Holy Cross Day. Their dates can be remembered by this old 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.
For non-Latinists, it might be easier to just remember “Lucy, Ashes, Dove, and Cross.”
These times are spent fasting and partially abstaining (voluntary since the new Code of Canon Law) in penance and with the intentions of thanking God for the gifts He gives us in nature and beseeching Him for the discipline to use them in moderation. The fasts, known as “Jejunia quatuor temporum,” or “the fast of the four seasons,” are rooted in Old Testament practices of fasting four times a year:
Thus saith the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Juda, joy, and gladness, and great solemnities: only love ye truth and peace.
Our Israelite ancestors once fasted weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but Christians changed the fast days to Wednesdays (the day on which Christ was betrayed) and Fridays (the day on which He was crucified). The weekly two day fasts were later amended in the Roman Church to keeping only Fridays as penitential days, but during Embertides, the older, two-day fasts are restored. Saturdays (the day He was entombed) were added to these Ember times of fasting and are seen as a sort of culmination of the Ember Days: for example, on Ember Wednesdays, there is one lesson given during the Mass; on Fridays, there are none; and on Saturdays, there are four or five. Interestingly, the story of Sidrach, Misach, and Abdenago's escape from King Nabuchodonosor's fiery furnace with the help of an angel is commemorated on each Saturday of Embertides except that of Whit Embertide, and part of their beautiful hymn of praise follows (Daniel 3:52-56. See readings at the bottom of the page for this gorgeous hymn in its entirety). (2)
Ember Days are days favored for priestly ordinations, prayer for priests, first Communions, almsgiving and other penitential and charitable acts, and prayer for the souls in Purgatory. Note that medieval lore says that during Embertides, the souls in Purgatory are allowed to appear visibly to those on earth who pray for them.
Because of the days' focus on nature, they are also traditional times for women to pray for children and safe deliveries. (2)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff