Ember Days

“…For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore, take up the whole armor of God…”  Ephesians 6:12-13

I think that one of the greatest failures of true religion is the lack of discernment regarding that which is evil.  Christians confine their spiritual vision to the earth, and too often miss the spiritual struggle that is even now working itself out in the heavenly places around us.  We tend to discount the new pagans, attributing far too little power to their rites and beliefs.  But Paul makes it clear in our opening scripture that there is a vast host of dark spiritual forces arrayed against the people of God, and it is to the heavens, as well as on the earth, that we must press the battle under the Lordship of Jesus Christ:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds…”  II Corinthians 10:3-5.

Throughout the ages the Church has sought to place such mighty weapons in the hands of her saints that they might strive mightily against the gates of hell and prevail.  One such weapon was the seasons of fasting  known to the Church as the Ember days.

The Origins of the Ember Days

One tradition holds that the name “ember” comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means the completing of a circuit, the coming round of a recurring time or season.  In modern terms we might liken it to the keeping of an anniversary date in which something of significance is remembered and celebrated each year.  The scripture tells us that all of creation speaks to us of the nature of God, that His word and order is proclaimed throughout the heavens, that the recurring passage of time reveals knowledge of His ways to us (read Psalm 19:1-6 for instance).  It’s unfortunate that the Christian Church has forgotten such lessons in which the heavenly plan and will of God are made manifest in time and place.  It is a lesson that the pagans have not forgotten, for in their “earth religion” they seek to tap into the cycle of creation which is by heritage the rightful property of the Christian Church.

Consider, for example, the great significance attached by the new age pagans to the keeping of the Vernal Equinox (March 21), the Summer Solstice (June 21), the Autumnal Equinox (September 23) and the Winter Solstice (December 22).   Equinox comes from the Latin meaning days on which daylight and night are equal, and Solstice comes from a word meaning when the “sun stands” at its greatest extreme.  The summer solstice is the longest daylight period, the winter solstice the shortest daylight period.   Such celebrations were historically tied to the three great harvests of wheat, grapes and olives by the ancient Romans.  But the Church was quick to note that these times were also periods in which demonic evil and wickedness seemed to flourish and peak in a cyclical regularity.  This is not surprising; for if, in the times of abundance,  man’s heart does not rise to his Creator in thanksgiving, it falls to prideful sins of ingratitude and idolatry.  Said another way, where grace is not at work in restoration, sin is at work in degradation.  Because heathen practices and rituals were so active in these times, the Church instituted its own seasons which were intended to stir up the saints to spiritual activity.   Such spiritual legislation is not forbidden by the scriptures and is part of the spiritual liberty which we possess as heirs with Christ.

Thus were born the so-called Ember days of Christianity.  Another tradition holds the origin of their name to have been derived from a corruption of the Latin “Quatuor Tempora”, the quarter tense or the four times.  Regardless of the origin of their names, the Ember Days were established from the start as days of fasting, abstinence, prayer, and increased almsgiving that by the weapons of righteousness the deeds of darkness might be exposed and overcome.   The Church also saw the added benefit in the observance of cyclic fasting in all the seasons of the year.  It continued to remind the saints of their need for repeated purification under the hand of God.  Then too it reminded each man that earthly life was not the fullness of the Kingdom of God, and the balancing of the days of feasting and celebration against the days of fasting and penitence brought a Godly harmony to daily life.  As Paul states in Philippians 4:11-13:

“…in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

The lessons which the ember days sought to teach were that men ought to thank God for the gifts of nature in each of its seasons; that men were to make right and moderate use of the abundance of God’s bounty; and that from this use they were to remember and assist those in true need of Christian charity.

Seasonal Disciplines Like Fasting Are Ancient

The practice of seasonal Church fasting is ancient.  The Roman Archbishop Callistus in A.D. 222 wrote in his first epistle:

“Fasting, which you have learned to hold three times in the year among us, we decree now to take place as more suitable in four seasons; so that even as the year revolves through four seasons, we too may keep a solemn fast quarterly in the four seasons of the year.  And as we are replenished with corn, and wine and oil for the nourishment of our bodies, so let us be replenished with fasting for the nourishment of our souls…”

Leo the Great in his Sermon 19 delivered around A.D. 450 declared:

“This profitable observance [i.e. self restraint and abstinence] is especially laid down for the fasts of the Church, which, in accordance with the Holy Spirit’s teaching, are so distributed over the whole year that the law of abstinence may be kept before us at all times.  Accordingly we keep the spring fast in Lent, the summer fast at Whitsuntide, the autumn fast in the seventh month, and the winter fast in this which is the tenth month, knowing that there is nothing unconnected with the Divine commands, and that all the elements serve the Word of God to our instruction.  For when the prophet says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork; day unto day utters speech and night unto night shows knowledge..’ what is there then by which the Truth does not speak to us?”

He continues later on to infer an apostolic origin for this practice.

“Let us therefore fast on Wednesday, and Friday, and on Saturday keep vigil with the most blessed apostle Peter….[performing] our supplications and fastings and alms which the Lord Jesus Christ presents…”

The observance of Ember Days is therefore fixed and at the same time variable.  They are fixed in the sense of occurring always on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and variable since they occur in the week after Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday (Pentecost), September 14 (historically the exaltation of the cross), and December 13 (the remembrance day of St. Lucia).  Thus the Latin verse was phrased to help the faithful remember their timing “Post crux, post lux, post ignes, post cineres”, or in a rough translation, “after the cross, after the light, after the fire, after the ashes.”

The seasons of God’s creation are ours by inheritance.  Let us reclaim them from the pagans so that their line may go out through all the earth for the glory of God; and let us not despise the Godly disciplines whereby the saints in ages past have wrestled to keep themselves undefiled in the world and persevering in the promises of God’s covenant.

Photo Credit: © Leigh Prather / Adobe Stock