Episco-Fact #92
May 17, 2018

Pentecost, as one of the Church's Principal Feasts, is clearly a big day in the church.  Are there church celebrations in the days ahead, late May and early June, that are important in the life of the Church?

 Over the week following this year's moveable feast, Pentecost, there are number of important Church Days that are celebrated before we get to the Feast of the Theological Concept (Trinity Sunday). The days that are important are: the feast of the First Book of Common Prayer (the masterpiece of compilation, editing, and writing by Thomas Cranmer) on Monday, May 21; the feast of the Venerable Bede, priest and monk of Jarrow in Northumbria of the Angles, who lived in the mid-eighth century; and the Ember Days of Wednesday, May 23, Friday, May 25, and Saturday, May 27.

 This week and this Episco-fact will deal with Ember Days. These Days are chosen because in the modern Episcopal Church, Postulants (women and men approved for evaluation and training for Holy Orders) are required to keep the Diocesan Bishop abreast of their lives, including their training and its impact on their personal and spiritual lives. Our Rector was a postulant for nearly seven years, which translates into twenty-eight of these letters to the Bishop of New York. It is likely that Bishop was really happy when the Rector said yes to Ordination.

 The reason Ember Days were chosen for this process of updating the Bishop is that Ember Weeks were traditional weeks for ordinations to take place after the church expanded beyond ordaining during Easter Week alone. This happened in the late fifth century and is reaffirmed later under Charlemagne and further on under Pope Gregory VII in 1085. Expansion took place for practical reasons with an expanding church and church population. It became impractical for the Bishop to ordain the increasing numbers of postulants and to do so only once a year.

 Ember Days have an even more ancient tradition than outlined above, appearing in liturgical writings as early as the early third century (i.e. before 215 A.D.). The word "ember" is likely an Anglo-Saxon corruption of Quatuor Tempora, meaning "four times." They correspond to the change of seasons, which during pagan times were often accompanied by prayers and sacrifices to the "gods" of the harvest and crops.

 The Church's response may be much like the response that formed in the west around Christmas, a possible response to the Roman festival of the Saturnalia. Leaders of Christians, who lived among the pagans, took the already emphasized practice of days of special devotion (fasting and prayer) to counter to cultural practices of the pagans and putting a special twist on those days by encouraging praying and fasting on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays of the agricultural seasons.

 The next Ember days will start on September 19, very nearly the corn cutting season in Virginia, and very nearly the Autumnal Equinox.