On rogation and ember days the practice of the Church is to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labour, and to give him public thanks
General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar
The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ACBC) decided, in accordance with paragraph 394 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002), that the first Fridays of Autumn and Spring should be reserved as special days of prayer and penance. While all Fridays are days of penance with fast and abstinence, the ACBC has substituted other penitential practices such as prayer, self denial and helping others.
In the liturgical calendar of the Latin Church in the West, there were four days set aside traditionally for solemn processions to invoke God's mercy. The Major Rogation Day of April 25 was originally to plead for protection of the crops against blight. This day was marked in Rome by a procession to St. Peter's Basilica, as the litany of the saints was sung. The three days preceding Ascension Day were regarded as the Minor Rogations. These Rogation Days had their origin in Gaul in 469 when Bishop Mamertus of Vienna ordered that a fast be kept and special intercessions made because of the earthquake and poor harvests afflicting his city. Processions were also held on these days as the litany of the saints was sung.
According to an even earlier practice, Ember Days (or "change-of-season" observances) were held at the start of winter, spring, summer and autumn. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday were set aside as days of fast and abstinence. Agrarian-centered, seeking God's blessing on the fruits of the harvests that would provide grain, wine and oil, the word ‘ember’ in this context does not mean a glowing or smouldering piece of coal or wood but rather comes from the old English word ymbryne meaning a recurring period, or may even be a derivation of the Germain Quatember, 'quarter day'.
The early history and original purpose of these days is obscure, but they likely originated in pagan celebrations connected with harvest, vintage and seed time. The tradition was well established in Rome at the time of Pope Leo in the 5th century. He preached a series of Embertide sermons. Ember Days were four groups of three days (always Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) of fasting and abstinence observed after the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost Sunday, the feast of the Holy Cross on September 14th and the feast of St Lucy on December 13th. Ember Days corresponded roughly with the beginning of each of the four seasons.
Retained in principle by the second Vatican Council, it was left to individual bishops' conferences to determine the time, number, and purpose of Ember and Rogation Days. (Rogation Days - from the Latin rogare, to ask - originated at times of calamity and were marked by processions, litanies and intercession. The principal rogation procession was eventually associated with intercession for a fruitful harvest).
As days of Prayer and Penance, Ember days may take a public character rather than merely private.
On one level, these days seek God’s blessing of favourable weather and a fruitful harvest from the land. In good times, it is natural to offer praise and thanksgiving to God for the blessings bestowed on us. In times of drought or flood in Australia, our prayers focus on people and places affected by natural disaster. At all times we need to be attentive to those who are devastated by famine and exploitation.
Ember Days today will focus on the environment and the responsibility of our stewardship of the world’s resources. They will help us connect our intercession for favourable conditions with a conversion of heart in relation to our care of the earth. For this reason, the bishops requested that emphasis be placed on doing penance, on fasting and abstaining in connection with these Ember Days. Fasting and abstaining from meat will encourage us to restraint in our exploitation of natural resources.
A day of penance will express our solidarity with those who are disadvantaged, especially those who suffer through famine and the inequitable distribution of the world’s goods.