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TBT: Ember Days

From The Living Church, September 19, 1936, pp. 293–94

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer appoints proper collects and readings for the observance of Ember Days under the title “For the Ministry (Ember Days).” It also provides propers “For those to be ordained,” “For the choice of fit persons for the ministry,” and “For all Christians in their vocation” (pp. 25657, 929).

Four times a year the notices on Sunday call our attention to the Ember Days. They have always been in our Prayer Book as days of abstinence, and in every revision have gained in importance. In 1892 they were given proper lessons, and in 1928 the addition of proper psalms and a collect, epistle, and gospel gave them a complete, though optional, liturgical office. That is to say, the services for these days are optional. The Prayer Book gives us no option in the matter of the abstinence, nor in that of adding to the regular service at least the prayer for those who are to be admitted to Holy Orders.

It is a pity that these days are not more strictly observed. To be sure the service provided in the Prayer Book may be faulted for dwelling too exclusively on one aspect of the Ember fast. But that aspect is an important one. It is worthwhile to unite the whole Church in intercessory prayer and fasting for the candidates for ordination. It is good to pray, as our Prayer Book directs, that the bishops may exercise proper discretion in choosing persons to ordain. We might wish that the prayers be extended to cover the examining chaplains who scrutinize, and the vestries and standing committees who certify these men. The bringing up of the subject of ordination four times each year cannot fail to stir up some people to ask, some clergymen to each and preach, about the nature and work of the ministry. The connection of the Ember Days with ordination, while not inherent, is very ancient, and our bishops might save themselves much valuable time and much trouble by insisting on the maintenance of this connection.

The Ember Day collect is a prayer for the increase of vocations to the ministry. Many have, not unreasonably, objected to praying for the increase of an already overcrowded profession. We suspect that this attitude has to some degree retarded the growth and activities of the Ember Guild.

But the priesthood is not really overcrowded. If we think only in terms of the secular pastor, settled on the field and drawing his entire support either from the field or from the missionary funds of the diocese or the National Council, overcrowding certainly is a fact. But there do not begin to be enough monastic clergy to meet the calls for the sort of work which they, and they only, can do. The supply of priests to go out at the utmost personal sacrifice among the poor of our cities or into the smaller agricultural communities, living like the people they serve, supported like St. Paul by whatever labor they can do or find, is so far from being too great that it is practically nonexistent. An ordained farmer or garage man could bring even a daily Eucharist, not to mention the certainty of the last rites when needed or priestly counsel and absolution when desired, to communities which can now have nothing but the monthly ministrations of the Archdeacon. We know of several priests in secular employment whose aid has been a great blessing to overworked parish clergy and poor parishes. It is only one form of the ministry that is overcrowded.

Alittle attention to the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel suggested (the optional character of the psalms and lessons certainly seems to imply that these also are not strictly prescribed) for the Ember Days shows them capable of a wider application. The choice of “ministry of reconciliation” instead of “ministry of the Word and Sacraments,” the scriptural passages describing not pastoral or priestly but evangelistic activities, give at least the Eucharist for these days a wider reference than simply to the ordained ministry. Certainly they apply to deaconesses, sisters, lay monks, teachers of religion, medical missionaries, Church Army. Certainly they would find their widest fulfilment in a laity devoted to personal evangelism along lines similar to the Brotherhood of St. Andrew or the Daughters of the King. Among our acquaintance there are a number of devoted men and women whose record of converts baptized and confirmed is a ministry of reconciliation in the fullest sense of the terms. For the increase of this ministry the need will never end.

But the Mediaeval and Patristic observance of the Ember Days, striking its roots into Pagan and Jewish observances long prior to the Christian Era, sounds a very different note, which we would do well not to lose. Till comparatively modern times these were days, not of abstinence but of fasting. The name “Ember” is derived by assimilation and linguistic decay from “Quattuor Tempora” and signifies the fasts at the four seasons. The collects and other propers of the ancient Ember services have no reference to ordination or to harvests. They simply reënforce the devotional tone of the season in which they occur with the added strength of asceticism and self-discipline.

This is the purpose for which the Western Church developed the Ember Days. Askesis, the hardening of the moral fibre by self-imposed austerities, as the athlete hardens his muscles by extra and voluntary effort, should not be confined to the 40 days of Lent. No athlete can keep in condition unless he maintains at all times some measure of the exercise of his period of intensive training—hence the continuous discipline of the Friday abstinence. Moreover, this regular exercise must be supplemented by occasional more intensive effort. So each of the four seasons of the natural year was given its short, intensive spiritual “workout,” taking the devotional thought that should occupy the Christian mind at that particular stage of the liturgical year, and applying it to our never-ending task of spiritual development as athletes of the soul.

So we think these days ought to be used more completely and more along the lines of their original purpose. Church attendance, of course; prayer for the men about to be ordained, of course; but in addition there should be meditations or classes in personal religion provided at the church, spiritual reading and bodily self-discipline at home. Each Embertide is supposed to be a miniature Lent, keeping alive the ascetic flame of spiritual effort, which is so apt to be smothered by the cares, activities, and pleasures of the ordinary life.

Richard Mammana is archivist of the Living Church Foundation, clerk of the vestry at Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut, and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences.


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