Ember Days, celebrated since the earliest days of the church, are unique in that they are rooted in the rhythm of the seasons. Four times annually, the Church denotes three days to concentrate on God through His marvelous creation. These quarterly periods take place around the beginnings of the four natural seasons.
They were prescribed for the entire Church by Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) and they are placed in Winter, after the the Feast of St. Lucy; in Spring, the week after Ash Wednesday; in the Summer, after Pentecost Sunday; and finally in Autumn, after the Feast of the Holy Cross.
Traditionally, Ember days are days of prayer and fasting. The fasting, (no food between meals) and half-abstinence, (meaning that meat is allowed at one meal per day), has great significance as through these activities, and through prayer, we are to use the Ember Days to "thank God for the gifts of nature, . . . teach men to make use of them in moderation, and . . . assist the needy."
Although fasting on Ember Days has become voluntary since the liturgical changes of the Council, many Catholics continue to take time each season to participate in fasting, abstinence and penance in union with the Church. As Leo the Great once said, "Devotion is all the more efficacious and holy, when the whole Church is engaged in works of piety, with one spirit and one soul. Everything, in fact, that is of a public character is to be preferred to what is private; and it is plain, that so much the greater is the interest at stake, when the earnestness of all is engaged upon it."
It was a universal custom before Vatican II for all ordinations to happen during Ember Week. It is also customary to pray for a fruitful and bountiful harvest during the Autumn Ember days.
Masses for Embertide contain lessons from the Old Testament (one on Ember Wednesday, none on Ember Friday but four on Ember Saturday), making the Masses as long as they are ancient.
Only during Embertide are nature and the gifts of nature singled out as special gifts from the Creator to mankind. In a time and place where the creation is worshipped rather than Creator, it is seems profoundly necessary to preserve their proper place by observing the Ember Days.