Timely Ember Days

By Derek Olsen

In an organization that has structured and arranged its ways of being in and out of weeks and months and years in a succession that passes through decades and crawls through centuries, old ways are covered by new ways, then rediscovered, then forgotten again in tides and waves of memories. Sometimes practices and ways and observances slowly drift to the bottom of the sea of memory and are silted over to be fossilized; at other times they are unexpectedly discovered and brought to the surface, admired for their anachronistic oddity then discarded yet again as obsolete. But sometimes these obscure treasures of time resonate when brought beneath the light of a new sun, revealing a vibrancy to once again be admired and treasured.

This week yields such an observance, or rather a set of them: the Ember Days. The Spirit moves as the Spirit wills and those who live by calendar of the Church come to note, to appreciate, to wonder at coincidences and collisions of observances and events. Indeed—we almost come to expect them. So at this time when the House of Bishops gathers, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and distinguished guests meet in New Orleans, it is no surprise that this week finds us at a time when the calendar itself urges us to pray for growth, for sustenance but above all to pray for the Church.

The Ember Days are of ancient origin. In each season of the year, a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday are devoted to fasting and prayer. Formerly, they were Roman festivals to beseech the blessings of the gods: one in summer for harvest, one in autumn for the vintage, and one in winter for the planting of seed. By the second century, Christians in Rome had baptized these observances and sometime (probably in the third century) a balancing fourth was added for spring. In fact, in the early days of Christian practice these four markers anchored the church’s year when its calendar was yet in its infancy—no Christmas yet, no Advent, an uncertain and emerging Lent—just Easter, Pentecost, and the Ember Days…

Originally tied to the earth, to the birth and growth of crops, a new meaning was given to them by the fifth century: the Ember Saturdays became the quarterly dates for the ordination of deacons and priests. Thus, the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays became days of fasting and supplication not just for the earth, but for the Church, for its ministers and ministry. They became a time to pray for the Church.

As the centuries circled the contours of our current calendar began to appear—Advent, All Saints, Feast of the Holy Trinity—and the Ember Days receded, their fortunes waxing and waning as liturgical fashion regarded or discarded them until the Roman Church suppressed them at Vatican II. In our own Anglican world they remain little known and little observed but for postulants in the Church: for these are the days when they are required to write letters to check in with their bishops. The current Book of Common prayer locates them among the Days of Optional Observance and, if you flip to the collects you will find none appointed there in course. Nevertheless, if you continue past the seasons of the year, past the Feasts and Holy Days to the numbered group of collects you will find three under number 15, prayers for “For those to be ordained,” “For the choice of fit persons for the ministry,” “For all Christians in their vocation”—one for each day, provided to pray for the Church.

As media hubbub and heightened rhetoric converge on New Orleans, humming and swarming around the House of Bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury like so many gadflies, I invite us to recall and recollect the Ember Days. It is time to pray for seeds, for growth, and for a bountiful harvest. It is time to pray for the faithful, the ordained, and the consecrated. Truly—it is a time to pray for the Church.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

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