Why Ember Days – Br. James Koester

Ember Friday

We find ourselves today, on the second of three days, when we are invited to pray specifically for the ministry of the church, and those engaged in it. So, on one day we pray for those to be ordained; on the second, for the choice of suitable persons for the ministry; and on the third, for all Christians in their vocations. Historically these are called Ember Days, and they happen four times a year: in Advent, Lent, just after Trinity Sunday, and in the middle of September.

While today these Ember Days are associated with prayer for the ministry of the church, it was not always so. Liturgical scholars believe their placement in the four quarters or cycles of the year, or quatuor tempora, in Latin, or ymbren ryne in Anglo-Saxon, which is where our word ember comes from, is no accident. It is thought that originally these days were associated with the agricultural cycle of the year: spring, summer, fall, and winter. If that is the case, the origin of Ember Days predates the history of the church, and prayers for ministry, and reaches back to our pre-Christian, agricultural forebears.

The agricultural roots of Ember Days are hinted at, because along with prayer for the ministry of the church, Ember Days are also associated with fasting. While the phrase Ember Days is largely now lost to our vocabulary, we Brothers are familiar with the concept of days of solemn prayer and fasting. We say in our Rule:

During Lent there will be a common discipline of abstinence with simpler meals and no meat. We will fast by abstaining from food until evening on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the four quarterly days of corporate retreat.[1]

Some of you will be familiar with this practice of ours, as we have intentionally invited you to join us in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, on these quarterly days of prayer and retreat, as we did earlier this month. What you may not have known, is that these days are also fast days for us. What few of us may realize, is that by doing so, we are reaching back, and joining hands with our ancestors, not simply in the faith, but to our pre-Christian ancestors who fasted, not to appease the gods, although there may have been some of that going on, but to ensure there would be eggs to hatch, and not simply eat; milk to feed to newborn calves, and not simply drink; and grain to sow, and not simply grind into flour.

Since the beginning of September, we, along with many others, have been observing the Season of Creation. One way of observing this season in by connecting more fully to the agricultural cycles of the year, which means paying attention to seasons of plenty, and seasons of scarcity. In a world where grocery stores are always (or at least usually) brimming full of produce, we forget that is not true everywhere. Today, as we keep an Ember Day, might be an invitation for us to pray, and even fast, in solidarity with those whose livelihoods, and very life itself, are threatened as climate change alters agricultural cycles around the world. Today, as we pray for the ministry of the church, might be an invitation to pray for the healing of the cycles of nature, and our role in that healing, and ways in which the Church might aid in that healing.

[1] SSJE, Rule of Life, The Rhythm of Feast and Fast, chapter 28, page 57

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