Ember Days, Rogations Days, and Station
Many of the ancient parts of the liturgical year have been
either forgotten or suppressed by Catholics. To aid in a retrieval and understanding of
three such areas -- Embertide, Rogationtide, and Station Churches -- we include the
The "Four Times," or Ember Days
What Are They?
- The Ember Days are four series of Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays which correspond to
the natural seasons of the year. Autumn brings the September, or Michaelmas, Embertide;
winter, the Advent Embertide; Spring, the Lenten Embertide; and in summer, the Whit
Embertide (named after Whitsunday, the Feast of Pentecost).
- The English title for these days, "Ember," is derived from their Latin name: Quatuor
Temporum, meaning the "Four Times" or "Four Seasons."
- The Embertides are periods of prayer and fasting, with each day having its own special
Is Their Significance?
The Ember Days Are...
- The Old Law prescribes a "fast of the fourth month, and a fast of the fifth, and a
fast of the seventh, and a fast of tenth" (Zechariah 8:19). There was also a Jewish
custom at the time of Jesus to fast every Tuesday and Thursday of the week.
- The first Christians amended both of these customs, fasting instead on every Wednesday
and Friday: Wednesday because it is the day that Christ was betrayed, and Friday because
it is the day that He was slain. (And we now know that this biweekly fast is actually
older than some books of the New Testament). Later, Christians from both East and West
added their own commemorations of the seasons.
- The Ember Days thus perfectly express and reflect the essence of Christianity.
Christianity does not abolish the Law but fulfills it (Mt. 5:17) by following the spirit
of the Law rather than its letter. Thus, not one iota of the Law is to be neglected (Mt.
5:18), but every part is to be embraced and continued, albeit on a spiritual, or
figurative, level. And living in this spirit is nothing less than living out the New
The Apostles preached one and the same faith wherever they went, but sometimes
instituted different customs and practices. Thus, Christians came to love not only the
universal faith but the particular apostolic traditions which had initiated them into that
The Roman appropriation of the Ember Days involved adding one day: Saturday. This was
seen as the culmination of the Ember Week. A special Mass and procession to St.
Peters in Rome was held, and the congregation was invited to "keep vigil with
Observing the Ember Days, therefore, not only celebrates our continuity with sacred
history, but with our own ecclesiastical tradition.
But continuity is not important because of a blind loyalty to ones own or a
feeling of nostalgia. On the contrary, the Christian fulfillment of the Law is important
because of its pedagogical value. Everything in the Law (not to mention the rest of the
Bible) is meant to teach us something fundamental about God, His redemptive plan for us,
or the nature of the universe, often on levels that are not initially apparent to us. In
the case of both the Hebrew seasonal fasts and the Christian Ember Days, we are invited to
consider the wonder of the natural seasons and their relation to God. The seasons, for
example, can be said to intimate individually the bliss of Heaven, where there is
"the beauty of spring, the brightness of summer, the plenty of autumn, the rest of
winter" (St. Thomas Aquinas).
Second, because the liturgical seasons of the Church are meant to initiate us annually
into the mysteries of our redemption, they should also include some commemoration of
nature for the simple reason that nature is the very thing which grace perfects.
Another Roman variation of Embertides, instituted by Pope Gelasius I in 494, is to use
Ember Saturdays as the day to confer Holy Orders.* Apostolic tradition
prescribed that ordinations be preceded by fast and prayer (see Acts 13:3), and so it
seemed quite reasonable to place ordinations at the end of this fast period. Moreover,
this allows the entire community to join the men in fasting and praying for Gods
blessing upon their calling and to share their joy in being called.
And Personally Prayerful
In addition to commemorating the seasons of nature, each of the four Embertides takes on
the character of the liturgical season in which it is located. In fact, the Ember Days add
to our living out the times of the Churchs calendar. For example, Ember Wednesday of
Advent (a.k.a the "Golden Mass"), commemorates the Annunciation while the Ember
Friday two days later commemorates the Visitation, the only time in Advent when this is
Embertides thus afford us the opportunity to ruminate on a number of important things:
the wondrous cycle of nature and the more wondrous story of our redemption, the splendid
differentiation of Gods ordained servants -- and lastly, the condition of our own
souls. Traditionally, these were times of spiritual exercises and personal
self-examination, the ancient equivalent of our modern retreats and missions. Little
wonder, then, that a host of customs and folklore grew up around them affirming the
special character of these days.
The Greater and Lesser Rogation Days
The Rogation Days consist of plaintive litanies to God and the saints chanted while the
faithful proceed through town and country and the priest blesses their land and property.
These processions, which are penitential in character, end at the church, where Mass is
"Rogation" is from the Latin rogare, to petition earnestly. The word
"litany" comes from the Greek litaneia (lite), meaning the same
There are two sets of Rogation Days. The first, called the "Major" or
"Greater" Litanies, is celebrated on April 25th. The second, called the
"Minor" or "Lesser" Litanies, is celebrated on the three days
immediately preceding Ascension Thursday.
What Are They?
What Is Their Significance?
The Rogation Days Are...
The use of litanies goes back to the Old Testament, when the cantor would recite
something and the congregation would reply with a set line, such as "His mercy
endureth forever" (Ps. 135) or "Praise and exalt Him above all forever"
(Dan. 3.57-87). Litanies are the most sensible form of song for pedestrians, as they
enable both cantor and congregation to catch their breath in between verses.
The Jews also prayed for blessings on their crops and homes at certain key points of the
year. In fact, two of the three great Hebrew feasts of the year -- the Feast of Weeks
(Pentecost) and the Feast of Tabernacles -- were related to the harvest.
Christianity retained the spirit of both of these practices, and rightfully so, as
everything that happened in the Old Testament happened so that it might instruct us on a
deeper figurative level. Litanies such as the Kyrie eleison, for example, were
treasured by both Eastern and Western Christians, as were blessings over the fruits of the
While the Rogation Days tie into a universally Christian tradition, they are
nevertheless quintessentially Roman. The Major litanies on April 25, for example, are a
Roman Catholic "baptism" of the Robigalia, a pagan procession to gain
favor from the Robigo, the Roman god of grain. Since the Church had no objection to
praying for the harvest, it threw out Robigo while keeping the procession.
Interestingly enough, the Lesser litanies are not, strictly speaking, Roman at all. They
were begun in 470 by Bishop Mamertus of Vienne, whose diocese (along with the rest of
France) practiced not the Roman rite, but the Gallican. Mamertus instituted these
petitions in response to a terrifying series of natural calamities (storm, floods,
earthquakes, etc.). The practice spread through France and Germany, and was eventually
incorporated into the Roman rite. Despite this fact, however, they are still a good
example of a uniquely Roman phenomenon, which is the engrafting of Gallican or Frankish
practices onto the Roman rite. Not only were the other historic apostolic rites far more
self-sufficient, but there is no other instance in Christendom of an area under a
patriarchs authority practicing a rite different than his own.
Rogationtide not only crystallizes the prayers of those whose livelihood depends on the
harvest, but it reminds all of us of our dependence on the fruits of the earth. The
Rogation Days are in fact the only days in the church calendar which are explicitly
Rogationtide also makes us aware of our reliance on natures clemency. Natural
disasters such as those experienced in fifth-century Gaul ever threaten to disrupt
civilization. The Lesser Rogation Days are the only days in the church calendar which
explicitly remind us of this fact.
Thus, whereas the Ember Days commemorate nature from the perspective of its seasons,
Rogationtide commemorates it vis-a-vis its relation to man and the city, both as a source
of bounty and as a source of potential harm.
Put differently, there is a communal dimension to Rogationtides portrayal of
nature. This can be adapted to modern parish life in ingenious ways. The Catholics of Cold
Springs, Minnesota, for example, erected "Grasshopper Chapel" in thanksgiving
for the end to an 1877 grasshopper plague that was miraculously stopped by their prayers.
To commemorate their deliverance, parish Rogation Days thereafter were marked by
processions to this chapel.
The Rogation Days (especially the Lesser) were also used as occasions of reconciliation
among parishioners who had grown angry at each other. This custom, popular in the Middle
Ages, also stems from the communal dimension of Rogationtide and could apparently be quite
And Personally Prayerful
The Litanies used for both the Greater and Lesser Rogation Days are exquisite. God and
the saints are invoked in a perfect theological hierarchy, followed by a touching plea for
deliverance from various evils. The psalms that are used -- the seven penitential psalms
of David -- also beatify the ceremony immensely. The litanies are therefore not only an
excellent mode of prayer, but an objection of great reflection.
Finally, the Lesser Litanies are a good preparation for Ascension Thursday.
Psychologically, it is difficult to keep up the jubilance of Pashaltide for forty days.
The penitential character of the Lesser Litanies allows for an emotional denoument so that
we may rejoice all the more for the "novena" from Ascension Thursday to
The Station Churches
Many Missals have notations for particular Masses indicating a station church. What does
this mean? Station churches are churches in Rome specially designated to be the location
for worship on a particular day. The seven most important -- the Sette Chiese --
are the four great and three minor basilicas: St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul, St.
Mary Major, the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, St. Lawrence, and the Twelve Apostles. Others
were added later to fit various liturgical occasions. The 1962 missal has 86 station days,
with 45 station churches altogether, the last two -- Santa Agatha and Santa Maria Nuova
(a.k.a. Santa Francisca Romana) -- having been added by Pope Pius XI in 1934.
The word "station" comes from the Latin word statio, meaning a
soldiers post. On special days the faithful of Rome, together with the Pope, would
gather at a particular church (the ecclesia collecta) and then solemnly proceed to
the statio, the church chosen to be the "post" where Mass would be
offered. During the procession a litany would be sung or a psalm (which would later become
the Introit of the Mass). Once there, the pope would "collect" the people
and their petitions into a single prayer -- the "collect" -- and then begin the
What Are They?
What Is Their Significance?
The Station Days Are...
The practice of processing from one place to another demonstrates the Church
militants pilgrim status on earth. Since Christians are in this world but not
of it, we cannot call this world our true home. Rather, our current life is to be
understood primarily as a pilgrimage to God. (This is foreshadowed in the Old Testament by
the nomadic journeys of Abraham and the patriarchs, as well as by the forty years spent by
the Hebrews in the wilderness.)
Processions are also significant as public testimonies of the faith. Contrary to our
modern notions of religion as a private phenomenon, classical Christianity affirmed the
public character of faith through its preaching, its corporal acts of mercy, and its
public visibility. Processions served this visibility admirably. It is no coincidence, for
example, that station observance began in Rome as soon as the persecutions ended.
Accordingly, most of the other historic apostolic rites made processions an important
part of their liturgical life. The Byzantine rite at the time of St. Germanus (d. 733),
for example, conducted an impressive procession from a small building called the skeuophylakion
to the vestibule of Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople before the Divine Liturgy
on Sunday. There was even a similar station arrangement, with processions from various
churches culminating at Hagia Sophia. Further, the church in Jerusalem began the practice
of the Stations of the Cross by following in solemn procession the path that our Lord took
to Golgotha. This kind of procession was imitated by the Crusaders, who brought it back
with them to Europe.
One of the Roman variations of Christian processing is the station churches. While other
rites used to have some kind of station, no other liturgical tradition has this particular
arrangement -- i.e., changing the place of worship in order to shed light on the meaning
of the liturgy being celebrated. Having, for example, the station church for Palm Sunday
be the Holy Cross in Jerusalem deepens our memory of our Lords triumphant entrance
Thus, in keeping the stations, we are not only enacting a universal Christian truth and
keeping alive a once universal Christian practice, but cherishing our ecclesiastical
Stations, as mentioned above, shed light on the meaning of the Mass. They are therefore
useful to keep in mind during Mass as a way of understanding the teaching of the day. In
many cases they have actually affected the choice of propers. The collect and epistle of
Sexagesima Sunday, for example, are linked to the station: ad Sanctum Paulum.
A station church was assigned for each day of Lent because the Roman Church recognized
its powerful psychological effect. All Christians or would-be Christians -- the faithful,
catechumens, and public penitents -- mingled as one, exhorting and inspiring each other.
(This was especially desirable during Lent as a means of enduring the harshness of the
fast.) But it serves to remind us, even outside of Lent, of the importance of fraternal
encouragement and aid.
Further, the station observance, as Pius Parsch once put it, is "a constant
exhortation to worship in common" (The Liturgy of the Mass (NY: B. Herder,
1941), p. 80). It is a conscious reminder that we are part of one Christian family moving
together towards God through the sacrifice of the Mass.
Perhaps the most important part of this communal awareness is its sanctoral dimension.
Stations are mostly named after saints, and these saints played an important role in the
station observance. Again Parsch remarks that on a station day "the saint was
represented as a living person, and considered as alive and present in the midst of the
congregation" (ibid., p. 78). The saint acted as the leader of the faithful
present and as a special intercessor for that day. Thus, station observance is a form of
veneration of the saints and an important one at that.
And Prayerfully Efficacious
All of these facets make prayerful meditation on the stational days a fruitful
entreprise. An excellent guide for this may be found on pp. 1630-1674 of The New Roman
Missal by Rev. F.X. Lasance and Rev. Francis Augustine Walsh, O.S.B. (Palmdale, CA:
Christian Book Club of America, 1993; reprint of 1945 edition).
Lastly, plenary indulgences can be gained on stational days for anyone attending a
station in Rome. Those outside of Rome may gain plenary or partial indulgences in a number
of ways, including membership in certain confraternities or assisting at the explanation
of the Catechism.
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