Ember days were uniformly set forth for the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Clermont in AD 1095, the same council at which Pope Urban II called forth the First Crusade. As a result, there was a Latin mnemonic: Dant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia/Ut sit in angariâ quarta sequens feria. From this an English mnemonic: Fasting days and Emberings be Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie, "Holyrood" refers to the Feast of the Holy Cross, observed 14 September, and "Whitsun" is Pentecost Sunday. It is the "Whitsun" Embering we have the opportunity to observe this week.
In addition to fasting and prayer, we are encouraged to celebrate (yes, celebrate) the Sacrament of Penance during Ember weeks. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal indicates, "In the drawing up of the Calendar of a nation, the Rogation Days and Ember Days should be indicated (cf. no. 373), as well as the forms and texts for their celebration" (par. 395). Due to all the criticism, often exaggerated and unjust, of the Second Vatican Council when it comes to such matters, I think it is important to note that what the Council Fathers and Venerable Pope Paul VI, who was given the arduous task of the implementing the Council, were seeking was not to abolish these tried and true means of spiritual and ecclesial growth, but to promote spiritual maturity among the faithful by laying heavy burdens on them, but issuing an invitation.
They sought to promote such growth by lifting the obligatory nature of such practices, including Friday abstinence outside of Lent, which is even now the preferred way of observing each Friday as a penitential day. It bears noting that by stating that something is obligatory, it means that a member of faithful's deliberate failure to do it amounts to committing a sin. As with Friday abstinence outside of Lent, the failure to promote Ember days after the Council has undoubtedly resulted not only in them being little observed, by even very little known about by large numbers of the faithful, including the clergy (who are a subset of faithful, not a group over and above them). Currently there are only two obligatory days of fasting: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I remember teaching an adult Sunday school class a number of years ago and trying to make this exact point.
As I was discussing the change in Catholic practice of fasting and abstinence after Vatican II, an older lady in the class stated that she remembered a priest telling her straight up that if you ate meat on Friday and did not repent and confess it you would go to hell. I do not believe that failure, or even refusal, to abstain from meat on Fridays is a damnable offense for a number of reasons, but that's another post (actually a number of previous posts). Fasting, along with prayer and alms-giving, is a spiritual discipline given us by our Lord Himself. Along with prayer and alms-giving, it is one necessary component of any authentic Christian spirituality. I have written on the various ways these disciplines work together to open us to God's grace. In my view, fasting serves what might be described as an integrating function between prayer and alms-giving. I will end with an observation made by James Kushiner (one I run the risk of over-using):
Practicing a "discipline won’t bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out-of-the-way so you are open to His grace"I invite you to join me this week, not because you have to, or out of a guilt-ridden sense of obligation, which is foreign to Christianity, but because it is a great opportunity.