The Michaelmas Ember Days are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. In this post, we give an overview to the background of the Ember Days as well as their purpose (If you don’t have time to read anything else, do scroll down to the bottom of the post and read the poem Autumn Inaugural by Dana Gioia; it is rather perfect for these days).
What are the Ember Days?
The Ember Days are set aside by the Church as a way to mark the passage of seasons through prayer and fasting. As you may suspect, this happens four times a year: in winter, after the feast of St. Lucy; in spring, after Ash Wednesday; in summer, after Pentecost Sunday; and in fall, after Holy Cross Day. An old English rhyme states: “Fasting days and Emberings be / Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.”
In Latin, these days are called Quatour Tempora (Four Times). The word “Ember Days” is from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, a circuit or revolution (from ymb, around, and ryne, a course, running). Folk etymology claims that the source of “ember” comes from “may ye remember,” that is, remember the cycle of death and life.
The earliest mention of the Ember Days is found in the writings of Philastrius, the bishop of Brescia, who died in 387 AD. However, Leo the Great (440-461) called the fasts an apostolic institution.
What are the Ember Days for?
These are days for prayer and fasting, specifically prayer for clergy and ordinations, as well as taking care of the needy. They are days to be attentive to the givenness of God’s created order in the passage of the seasons. For this reason, they have also traditionally been the times that women pray for children and childbirth.
How does the Book of Common Prayer treat the Ember Days?
The collect for the Ember Days is as follows:
Almighty God, who hast committed to the hands of men the ministry of reconciliation; We humbly beseech thee, by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, to put it into the hearts of many to offer themselves for this ministry; that thereby mankind may be drawn to thy blessed kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The epistle is Acts 13: 44-48. The Gospel is St. Luke 4:16-31
Are there any interesting customs surrounding the Ember Days?
Folklore says that the weather of the Ember Days predicts the weather of the year. You can scroll down on the Fisheaters Ember Days article to find a helpful chart showing which Ember Day corresponds to which month of the year.
If I want to know more, what are some other helpful resources?
We found these two links to be particularly helpful:
Catholic Culture: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/blog/index.cfm?ID=155
To conclude, the following poem from contemporary poet Dana Gioia seems particularly fitting in a post about rituals marking the changing of the seasons.
Autumn Inaugural by Dana Gioia
There will always be those who reject ceremony,
Who claim that resolution requires no fanfare,
Those who demand the spirit stay fixed
Like a desert saint, fed only on faith,
To worship in no temple but the weather.
There will always be the austere ones
Who mount denial’s shaky ladder
To drape the statues or whitewash the frescoed wall,
As if the still star of painted plaster
Praised creation less than the evening’s original.
And they are right. Symbols betray us.
They are always more or less than what
Is really meant. But shall there be no
Processions by torchlight because we are weak?
What native speech do we share but imperfection?
Praise to the rituals that celebrate change,
Old robes worn for new beginnings,
Solemn protocol where the mutable soul,
Surrounded by ancient experience, grows
Young in the imagination’s white dress.
Because it is not the rituals we honor
But our trust in what they signify, these rites
That honor us as witnesses – whether to watch
Lovers swear loyalty in a careless world
Or a newborn washed with water and oil.
So praise to innocence – impulsive and evergreen –
And let the old be touched by youth’s
Wayward astonishment at learning something new,
And dream of a future so fitting and so just
That our desire will bring it into being.
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