Four times a year* the Church’s calendar sets aside special days of focus on ministry…our work of sharing, serving, and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These times—called Embertides from the old English word ymbren, probably having to do with course or periodic—are to be marked by prayer, fasting, and a pause in our normal activities to consider what the nature of ministry is and how we are living it out. Whether we are old or young, single or married, parents, employed, retired, in school, ordained, unemployed, in discernment, or any of the myriad other ways we may describe ourselves, if we are members of Christ’s Body the Church we are ministers of the Gospel and must give an account for that ministry given at baptism.
This accounting is not supposed to be an anxious experience but rather an offering of a trained, growing, actively-loving heart, and this means an ongoing practice of reflection, amendment, and renewal. The Embertides provide that practice for Episcopalians—if we are willing to take it up.
Unlike Advent or Lent, the Embertides aren’t a major focus in parish life. You have to know about them to observe them. In recent decades they have drifted to the margins in Church life, like a forgotten life preserver in a lifeboat or a valuable tool lost in the bottom of an old toolbox. Perhaps this is because of a distortion that occurred with the Ember Days long ago.
You see, as the years rolled on the Ember Days (always a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at the start of one of the seasons of the year) came to focus mostly on the ordained orders of the Church…reasonable in a way, but a mistake. While the clergy need particular prayer, support, and accountability (we know how much good or damage can come of spiritually healthy or unhealthy clergy), the renewed focus on the ministry of all God’s people in the late 20th century has been a great blessing.
By re-affirming the centrality of our baptismal identity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to each of us through that baptism the Church has been prepared to thrive in a post-imperial/colonial world…a world where the steep pyramidal structure the Church adopted long ago makes less sense and serves fewer purposes than it ever did. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer made this baptismal priority a central mission, and in some ways, we are still learning how to live out that mission today. The Embertides are one of the main ways we do this in the Anglican/Episcopal Tradition.
To observe the Ember Days, I suggest some of the following practices…
- Look at the Baptismal liturgy in the BCP and focus on these parts: the renunciations of evil/affirmations of faith; the Apostles’ Creed, the five baptismal promises following the Creed, and the prayer following baptism (“Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit…”): then prayerfully reflect how you are living out—or failing to live out—these central parts of our faith. Do this with simplicity and openness, calling upon the Holy Spirit to guide you.
- A review of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew is a highly useful Embertide practice. Taking time to listen to Jesus’s words and the Spirit’s response in us will serve as an ideal form of reflection.
- If ordained, review the Ordinal, with special focus on the description of the essential characteristics of the ministry given you and those promises you made at that time, as well as the words of the Veni Creator Spiritus and the consecration prayer. In prayer with Jesus, reflect on your giftedness and your poverty in living out these vows and the ministry entrusted to you. Give thanks for the gifts; acknowledge your poverty, and repent of sin.
- Alternatively, if you have been ordained, consider using the wildly-Victorian yet still amazingly insightful “Litany of Remembrance” (sometimes also known as the Southwell Litany). This prayer serves as a careful and wise self-examination for clergy…with regard both to the inner life and some important aspects of our public ministry. [I hope to get around to posting the lay version of this prayer put out years ago by Forward Movement…it is very good and can make an excellent Lenten series or Quiet Day topic all by itself.]
- Pray the Litany for Ordinations (BCP p. 548), which has useful petitions for both the lay and ordained orders (I have made a version of this litany for Embertide use here); alternatively, you may want to use the Great Litany (BCP p. 148), which is the traditional intercession at the Embertides.
- Conclude with the Collects for Embertide found in the Prayer Book (pp. 205 or 256)
- Include hymns associated with baptism, Christian Responsibility, or ordination. I particularly like St. Patrick’s Breastplate, “Come thou fount of every blessing,” “Lord, whose love through humble service,” “Remember your servants, Lord,” “Where charity and love prevail,” and “Teach me, my God and King.”
- Fast as part of your Embertide devotion.
- Make a sacramental confession where your reflection has shown you the need to repent, receive absolution, and be cleansed or healed.
There are many ways, no doubt, of observing the Embertides. The point I wish to make is that this is a gift the Church is giving us, akin to continuing education in any profession…but actually much more than that. The Ember Days are clear and intentional opportunities for direct encounter with Christ who is the model and pattern for all ministry, and the Holy Spirit who activates, guides, and encourages us each in our service.
These days are occasions for exactly the kind of personal and unmediated communion with God we as Christians are privileged to have…but often fail to take up. By making the effort, we are making clear our awareness of how serious the matter of following Christ is, and are reclaiming the truth that we never minister alone, unaided. This last fact is the essence of sustained, enduring, discipleship.
Come and enjoy the gift prepared for you as a minister of the Gospel wherever you are and whatever you do: observe the Ember Days.
*Those four times are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following: St. Lucy’s Day (December 13), The First Sunday in Lent, Pentecost, and Holy Cross Day (September 14).