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The Christian Year: The Ember Days

Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah; seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. Therefore love truth and peace. – Zechariah 8.19

Near the beginning of each of the four seasons, the Church sets aside three days to reflect and rejoice in the wonder of creation and to pray for and set apart ministers for the Church. These are the Ember Days. The name for the days is an English corruption of the German, ‘Quatember’, which is derived from the Latin, ‘Quattuor Tempora’, which means ‘the four seasons’. In the earliest days of the Church, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of most weeks were fast days. Wednesday was a fast to remember Christ’s betrayal. Friday was a fast because Christ was crucified on a Friday. Saturday was a fast to prepare for the celebration of the mysteries on Sunday morning. The Ember Days retain that ancient character and so they are commemorated on those three days.

Men and women have always held the changing of the seasons as something significant, and the Church is no different. It is thought that as early as the reign of Pope Callistus I (c.218-25), western Christians have been marking the seasons with distinct prayers and services. We know that Pope Leo the Great (440-61), spoke of four periods of fasting, almost certainly referring to the Ember Days.

It is not known, however, exactly when or why the Ember Days became associated with the ordinations of priests and deacons, but that practice likely goes back to the fifth century. Conferring holy orders near the third Saturday in December is an older tradition that was incorporated into the celebration of the Ember Days.

Like the four seasons, the Ember Days appear on the calendar at the same times each year. The winter Ember Days, come in the week following the Third Sunday in Advent, after the feast of St. Lucy (Dec. 13). The spring Ember Days fall in the week following Ash Wednesday (the first full week of Lent). The summer Ember Days follow the feast of Pentecost. Finally, the autumn Ember Days appear on the calendar after the Feast of the Holy Cross (September 14th.)

As the Church commemorates again the winter Ember Days, set aside some a moment to pray for those about to enter into ordained ministry. Pray that God would raise up godly, righteous, and sober priests and deacons for His church. Pray for all ministers, lay and ordained. Pray for this priest also.

Take a moment and step outside and marvel at the season. Here in Michigan, we have a good amount of snow and the temperatures are dropping. Give thanks to God the creator for all the beauty and life. Thank Him for the cold and for the warmth of the fire. Take a walk and listen to the birds sing His praises. Remember that it is from His hand that we receive these and all good gifts. “Let the heavens declare His glory and the sky proclaim His handiwork” (Psalm 19.1).

Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts, in your divine
providence you have appointed various orders in your
Church: Give your grace, we humbly pray, to all who are
called to any office and ministry for your people; and so
fill them with the truth of your doctrine and clothe them with
holiness of life, that they may faithfully serve before you, to
the glory of your great Name and for the benefit of your holy
Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. 
Amen.

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