By Father Thom Hennen
Q. What are Ember Days and Rogation Days?
A. I am ashamed to admit that before receiving this question I was not really sure myself, so this forced me to hit the books. Thank you! The fact that I was largely unaware of these days is telling,
as previous generations of Catholics would have been familiar with them. Both Ember Days and Rogation Days were removed from the official Church calendar in the reforms following the Second Vatican Council, though particular parishes may still observe them in some fashion.
Basically, these are extra days of prayer and penance throughout the year. Rogation Days were celebrated around the time of spring planting. The major Rogation Day was April 25 and three minor Rogation Days were observed on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday leading up to Ascension Thursday. The word “rogation” comes from the Latin rogare — “to ask.” This was a time to ask God especially for favorable weather and conditions for planting, in hopes of a fruitful harvest. Various litanies were prayed and fields were blessed. The Ordo (calendar) booklet that parishes use today notes on April 25: “Today … the Greater Litanies were formerly celebrated. These public prayers implored God to preserve us from calamites and to bless the crops. The Order for the Blessing of Fields and Flocks may fittingly be celebrated today or some other convenient day in rural communities.”
Ember Days were four sets of three days that roughly corresponded to the seasons of the year. They were the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost, Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14) and the feast of St. Lucy (Dec. 13). Following the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Ordo notes: “Formerly, the Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday following the Feast of the Holy Cross were observed as Ember Days, a time to give thanks to God for the first fruits of the harvest. Rural communities may wish to celebrate the Order for a Blessing on the Occasion of Thanksgiving for the Harvest on one of these days or on some other occasion.”
Rogation Days and Ember Days are another expression from our tradition of our sacramental approach to the world. We observe the changing of seasons, recognize our connection to the land and dependence on God for all things. We ask God to bless our labors and we pray with our whole bodies — through practices such as fasting, abstinence from meat, pilgrimages and processions. Maybe something we have lost in “downgrading” these days is the idea that such practices are not limited to one season or Ash Wednesday and Good Friday but may be practiced year-round.
While we’re at it, people often mistakenly assume that Vatican II did away with weekly Friday penance. It did not. While significant changes were made to the rules surrounding fasting and abstinence in 1966, the Code of Canon Law still states: “Abstinence from eating meat or some other food according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops is to be observed on every Friday of the year unless a Friday occurs on a day listed as a solemnity” (can. 1251). The U.S. bishops added their own clarification, giving first place to abstinence from eating meat but allowing for another form of penance on Fridays throughout the year.
Of course, it is always good to remember that we do these things not because we are punishing ourselves or trying to earn God’s love but as a participation in the perfect sacrificial love of Christ and to open ourselves more fully to God’s grace.
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to email@example.com)