Rogation and Ember Days: Days of Penance vs. Care of Creation

Ember days are special commemorations for prayer, fasting, works of charity, and penance. Besides Fridays in Ordinary Time (“The Day of Our Lord’s Passion”), ember days are additional dates of remembrance connecting us to the bigger picture of human passion. Before Vatican Two the Church kept three days (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) near the beginning of each season as times of special penance and intercession. Historically these were nature feasts spiritualized from pagan practices at the change of the seasons. “Ember” comes from on Old English word “ymbren” meaning “running around.”

With a Vatican Two reinterpretation of this original idea, the three days of running about four times a year are gone. Instead the US Bishops (NCCB/USCC) in the 1988 book of Catholic Household Blessing and Prayers, propose a reexamination that ember days echo the meaning and observance of Lent. Thus, the embers are tied to the ashes of Ash Wednesday. And they have a connection to the earth/dust/star stuff of which humans are made. The book suggests six such dates: MLK, Jr. holiday, August 6 and 9 with the remembrance of the Atomic bomb, the weekdays before Thanksgiving, December 28 Holy Innocents, and the Jewish commemoration of Yom Hashoah (twelve days after Passover). I have assembled a list of dates that are appropriate to doing penance or making reparation because they are a part of the human passion and quest for justice and peace.

Ember days focus on specific needs of the contemporary world. Sometimes the observance of fasting and prayer would be a way to express sorrow over a tragedy and to ponder the responsibility for making a peaceful world. These days are not about personal penance, but are communal in nature, expressing something about the universal human experience. These dates take us beyond ourselves to think about and pray for others. In general, we do not fast or do penance during the Easter and Christmas seasons or on solemnities and special feast days. (Thus, feast versus fast!) However, this is not a strict rule and besides, these observances are totally voluntary in nature, more in the realm of personal devotion. We are making this a group effort to be more mindful and intercessory.

There is also something called “rogation days” on which a litany is prayed asking for God’s blessing on the harvest. The word “rogation” means “asking” or “beseeching.” The main three rogation days are the M/T/W before Ascension Thursday. Outside of agrarian culture, rogation prayer has fallen out of practice. April 25th (St. Mark’s) is also a singular rogation day, which in contemporary times puts it in the proximity of April 22nd’s Earth Day and Earth Week celebration. There are also other days of prayer for creation, something our chapter has been practicing, but has also been enhanced and encouraged under Pope Francis.

All this is to 1) Extend our prayer and interests beyond our weekly chapter liturgy into daily life and 2) Promote year-round creation spirituality.

Deacon Jim Cummings