Giving thanks for the fruits of the earth

If you are a Catholic under age 50, you might not be familiar with two long-practiced penitential periods known as Ember days and Rogation days. For centuries, these days were among the most solemn times of the Church year. Periods of intense penitential practices, they took on the flavor of Lent, including obligatory fasting, almsgiving and abstinence. For 15 centuries, Ember days have been part of the Church, and Rogation days can be traced back to pagan Rome.

Until the 1960s, these day were an integral part of the annual liturgical calendar. Both devotions were designed for mankind to acknowledge and honor the God of all creation, especially for the fruits of the earth. Ember and Rogation days were seasonal mainstays when society was largely agrarian; people relied on the land for not only their food but their livelihood. The faithful professed their utter dependence upon God’s awesome mercy as reflected in the natural seasons of the year, in the planting, growing and harvesting of the crops. They prayed and fasted, even went out into the fields extolling God’s works, seeking his blessing, his shield against natural calamities, all the while not knowing how the seed grew and became fruits of the land (cf. Mk 4:27-28). Combined, Ember and Rogation days added 16 more days of penance to the Church year.

Rogation days

Beginning with the pagans of Rome, Rogation days have served as a time to give thanks for all we have and ask for protection from natural disasters that might impact the individual and the harvest. Pagan worshippers of early Rome performed an annual feast during which the people processed into the countryside and asked their false gods to protect the fields from every kind of disaster and ensure a good crop. The day of this celebration was always the same, April 25. The most prominent of the false gods was the goddess of grain, Robigo, and thus the name Rogation, which comes from the Latin, “to ask or petition.”

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Ember and Rogation days are periods of prayer. Shutterstock

Centuries later, Christians also marched from Rome into the fields giving thanks and petitioning the True God for successful planting and growing seasons. The Christians kept the same April feast day but marched to different locations than the pagans. Their procession was lead by a priest, often by the pope, who would bless the fields and the people. The priest wore purple vestments, the participants glorified God, and the march always ended at a church where Mass was celebrated. In the late sixth century, Pope St. Gregory the Great gave Churchwide approval to this annual ceremony. In France, well before Pope Gregory’s actions — and more out of necessity — another kind of Rogation day was initiated.

In 469, the city of Vienne, France, experienced a series of catastrophes including fires, earthquakes, floods and roaming wild animals. The local bishop, Archbishop Mamertius, later a saint, concluded that these catastrophic events resulted from the rebellious nature and sinfulness of the population. He directed the people to a three-day fast, intense prayer and reconciliation to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The days selected were those just before Ascension Day. On each of the three days, people processed into the fields invoking God’s blessing, asking him to spare the land and the people from the calamities. Almost immediately, the disasters ceased.

During the ninth-century reign of Pope St. Leo III, the Rogation days of Rome and those of France were adapted into the Roman liturgy and then spread elsewhere. The April 25 celebration was known as the greater — or major — of the litanies, and the three days before the feast of the Ascension were called the minor litanies.

Ember days

Like Rogation days, the times known as Ember days were penitential in nature, in fact, so much so that they have been referred to as “little Lent.” They were celebrated once each seasonal quarter of the year and took place on a Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following the First Sunday of Lent, the week immediately after Pentecost, the week after the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and the Third Sunday of Advent. These days included fasting and intense prayer and became holy days of obligation. People came together for all-night vigils acclaiming God’s greatness and generosity.

The celebrations were fixed to the farming cycles of planting, growing and cultivating. Such repetitive events are found in the Old Testament, specifically in Zechariah, which says, “the fast days of the fourth, the fifth, the seventh and the 10th months will become occasions of joy and gladness” (8:19).

Christians had fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays since the beginning of the Church. In the third century, Pope Callistus I included Saturdays, along with Wednesdays and Fridays, as an obligatory three-day fast at the beginning of spring, summer and autumn. During these periods, called Ember days, people practiced the penitential customs normally associated with Lent. Some 200 years later, Pope St. Leo the Great added winter as a time to observe Ember days, and by the 12th century, this three-day version of Lent was celebrated every four months throughout the Church. For centuries, the Saturdays of Ember days were also days on which the Church conferred holy orders.

Optional celebrations

No longer days of obligatory fasting and penance, Ember and Rogation days remain optional celebrations.

The General Norms of the Liturgical Year reads: “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 labor, and to give him public thanks. In order to adapt the Rogation and Ember days to various regions and the different needs of the people, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan for their celebration” (Nos. 45-46).

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.

Masses for Various Needs
While no longer widely celebrated in the United States, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal continues to allow for the liturgical celebration of Ember and Rogation days.