Today is the Ember Wednesday in Advent. Etymologically speaking, however, the word is another example of the theological superiority of the Irish Gaelic language over the Saxon. In Latin, the term is Quatuor Tempora, the Four Times. French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, as may be expected of Romance Languages, retain this form. However, even German retains this root in description of the four periods of fasting that equate roughly with the four seasons of the year.
In English, however, the term 'Ember' derives from the connection of the two roots ymb (meaning around), and ryne (meaning a circuit or course). From this, it might be thought that there is a confusion with Rogation Days. However, it seems to refer instead to the distribution of the days throughout the year. The potential for confusion with Rogations is the greater in Welsh, however, which speaks of Ember Weeks as Wythnos y cydgorian (the Week of the Processions). Quarter Tense, a more arcane English term, follows the general usage of Christendom.
Irish Gaelic, on the other hand, retains the general reference to the Four Times in referring to Laethanta na gCeithre Thráth or the days of the Four Times.
Guéranger assigns the practice of Quarter Tense to the Prophet Zacheriah, Chapter viii, Verse 19: "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."
The Douay-Rheims version notes for this verse that: "They fasted, on the ninth day of the fourth month, because on that day Nabuchodonosor took Jerusalem, Jer. 52. 6. On the tenth day of the fifth month, because on that day the temple was burnt, Jer. 52. 12. On the third day of the seventh month, for the murder of Godolias, Jer. 41. 2. And on the tenth day of the tenth month, because on that day the Chaldeans began to besiege Jerusalem, 4 Kings 25. 1. All these fasts, if they will be obedient for the future, shall be changed, as is here promised, into joyful solemnities."
The Irish understanding of the four quarters of the year needs no explanation for anyone familiar with the Gaelic calendar.
Some point to specific Celtic origins, linked to the Celtic custom of observing various festivals at three-month intervals: Imbolc, Baeltaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain. The quarterly or seasonal nature of Ember Time is typical of a society living in harmony with its environment and a society that recognises the inherant links between the spiritual and the natural.
Is it going too far to say that traditional Catholicism retained this sense of harmony but that it has been lost since Vatican II? Perhaps it is no coincidence that there has been a rise in interest in paganist practices and language relating the spiritual to the natural since the majority of Catholics have been deprived of traditional Catholic devotions.
A Latin rhyme gives the timing of the four Ember Weeks:
Dant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angariâ quarta sequens feria.
An old English rhyme translates it as follows:
Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.
There has been plenty of discussion on the blogosphere this week about the fact that the calendar rubrics of John XXIII place the September Ember Week after the third Sunday rather than after 14th September or "Holyrood".
Mention of the Irish links to Ember Days would not be complete without some mention of the Irish spirit of ascetisism and fasting. For example, in the Manuscript Materials of Irish History by Professor O'Curry there is reference to Laethanta na gCeithre Thráth in the Rule of St. Carthage, in that part where the Saint speaks of the order of refection and of the refectory, at line 114 he says:
A tredan [three days total fast] every quarter to those
Who fast not every month,
Is required in the great territories,
In which is the Faith of Christ.
Interestingly, it would appear that the Holy See dispensed from the abstinence from flesh meat on Ember Saturdays outside Lent in Ireland in 1912.
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