Thursday Bonus – A Reflection on Ember Days

My rector, the guy who makes up the preaching schedule, slammed himself with work this week.  He’s got a wedding on Saturday, with the commensurate rehearsal tomorrow, he’s preaching Advent 3, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.  So, when he realized that this month’s Men’s Dinner Advertisement (what the guys call our short reflection) was also on his agenda, he passed it along to me.  I was happy to oblige, but had no idea what I would talk about, until last night when a member of the real life Draughting Theology, BG, asked me a straightforward question that I hear at least once a year, “What are Ember Days?”  So, here’s my answer:

If you spend much time in the Church, this time of year brings with it all sorts of questions about holidays. Those who have read the Pope’s latest book will ask, “why is Christmas on December 25th?” Others wonder about Advent Wreaths and Christmas Trees. It makes us look ahead to Epiphany, Lent, and Easter. Why does Easter move? What’s the deal with eggs? Why are they brought by a rabbit? The Church and her festivals are full of things that we either accept at face value or cause us to ask all sorts of questions.

One question that I get at least once a year, a question that came up last night, in fact, is “What’s an Ember Day?” If you look at the Church calendar this week you’ll notice that it is packed full of stuff:

  • Sunday was the Third Sunday of Advent
  • Monday was the Feast of William Lloyd Garrison and Maria Stewart – two people I’ve never heard of.
  • Yesterday was an Ember Day and the Feast of Lillian Trasher, another person I’ve never heard of
  • Tomorrow is the Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle and an Ember Day.
  • Saturday is the Feast of Henry Budd and Lottie Diggs, two more people I’ve never heard of and still another Ember Day.
  • Sunday is the Fourth Sunday of Advent
  • Monday is the Eve of the Nativity
  • Tuesday is the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ
  • Wednesday is the Feast of Saint Stephen
  • Thursday is the Feast of Saint John the Apostle
  • And Friday is the Feast of the Holy Innocents

I’m tired thinking of all of it, but thinking back just five short years ago, I remember being even more tired, for you see those seeking ordination are required to write a letter to their bishop during Ember Weeks. Ember Days are four sets of three days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) that since the third century have been set apart for fasting and prayer. These days fall on third week of Advent (this week), the first week of Lent, Pentecost week, and Holy Cross week. If you are in seminary those weeks are finals, mid-terms, finals, and mid-terms – a great time to be adding a letter to your bishop into the mix.

As with most things Roman in origin that lived through the Middle Ages, the Ember Days became almost exclusively related to the clergy, but in their original incarnation, they were focused on the blessings God offers through agriculture: thanking God for the gifts of nature, teaching their use in moderation, and to assist the needy. They followed the pagan practice of offering prayers for the harvest, vintage, and seeding. They also followed the Jewish custom of celebrating three main feasts each year:

From Deuteronomy 16, “In honor of the LORD your God, always celebrate the Passover at the proper time in early spring, for that is when the LORD your God brought you out of Egypt by night… Count off seven weeks from the beginning of your grain harvest. The you must celebrate the Festival of Harvest to honor the LORD your God. Bring him a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings you have received from him… Celebrate with your whole family, all your servants, the Levites from your towns, and the foreigners, orphans and widows who live among you…. Another celebration, the Festival of Shelters, must be observed for seven days at the end of the harvest season, after the grain has been threshed and the grapes have been pressed. This festival will be a happy time of rejoicing with your family, your servants, and with the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows from your towns…”

As we approach Christmas and all the stuff and the busyness that goes along with it, I’m thankful this week for the reminder of my place in the world that Ember Days offer. I commend them to you as well.

Like the ancient Israelites, we ought remember the foreigners, orphans, and widows in our town. Like the pagans, from whom the Church has begged, borrowed, and stolen many of its celebrations, we give thanks to God for the abundance of gifts that he has bestowed upon us. And with the Church, we pray that in everything we do, God might be glorified.

In the third of three Collects for Ember Days, the one presumably appointed for Saturday, we offer prayers for all Christians in their vocations – the occupation to which a person is specifically drawn or for which one is suited, trained, or qualified. You may not be drawn to or suited for ordained ministry – that’s good. You may not be drawn to or suited for farming – that’s OK. But there is certainly some Kingdom work for which you are suited or to which you are drawn that God has gifted you specifically to accomplish. As we approach the New Year, as resolutions get made and broken, as this Ember Week invites you to prayer, I hope that you’ll take some time to ponder on what God is asking of you in this new season: what vocation is God calling you to take on?

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before you and all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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2 thoughts on “Thursday Bonus – A Reflection on Ember Days

    • I did actually, but there is some dispute over the etymology. If your favorite Augustine is from Canterbury, then it comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ymbren which means a revolving cycle. If you prefer Hippo, then it comes from a corruption of the German, Quatember, which comes from the Latin, Quatuor Tempora, which means “four times”. I lean toward the latter, partly as an Episcopalian and partly because for the first 200 years, Ember Days happened only 3 times a year.

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