Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.
— Old English Rhyme
If asked to name times during the year that are of great importance to Christians, most people would suggest Christmas and Easter; not many of them would say “Ember Days.” But, in fact, Ember Days are an ancient tradition that predates Christmas, Advent, and many other Christian celebrations, and can be traced all the way back to the time of the Hebrew Scriptures, when a fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months was prescribed. During Jesus’s time there was also a Jewish custom of fasting every Tuesday and Thursday of the week. The first Christians carried on these two traditions, but chose to fast instead on Wednesday and Friday, the day Jesus was betrayed and the day he died, respectively.i
There are several different explanations for the origins of the name “Ember Days.” Some say it is a corruption of the Latin name Quatuor Temporum, which means “Four Times” or “Four Seasons.”ii It’s also possible that the term could be derived from the ancient Saxon language, where Emb, or embe, means a “course” or “circuit.”iii The Ember Days are a quarterly series of Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, taking place at the beginning of each natural season, that are set aside as a time of fasting and prayer: Michaelmas Embertide in September, signaling the beginning of autumn; Advent Embertide in December, ushering in the winter season; Lenten Embertide, which arrives in spring; and Whit Embertide comes at the start of the summer season.iv These three days each season provide the faithful with an opportunity to contemplate the wonder of God through His creation – that is, the natural world – and to engage in self-reflection. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the 4th Century CE, provides an excellent model for Embertide contemplation. He writes,v
If any man attempt to speak of God, let him first describe the bounds of the earth. Thou dwellest on the earth, and the limit of this earth which is thy dwelling thou knowest not: how then shalt thou be able to form a worthy thought of its Creator? Thou beholdest the stars, but their Maker thou beholdest not: count these which are visible, and then describe Him who is invisible, Who telleth the number of the stars, and calleth them all by their names.
In addition to their associations with the changing seasons, Ember Days also correspond to other feasts during the Christian Year. Michaelmas Embertide follows the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14th); Advent Embertide comes on the heels of St. Lucy’s Day (December 13th); Lenten Embertide is paired, of course, with the start of Lent; and Whit Embertide, as its name suggests, is associated with Whitsunday (Pentecost). By observing the Ember Days at the beginning of each season, we are retrieving this ancient aspect of our ecclesiastical history, which is said to have originated with the Apostles themselves, as well as our shared cultural history. Even those who are not practicing Christians can appreciate the historical significance of the Ember Days — anyone with European roots will be in good company with their ancestors, for whom these four weeks during the year were of great importance. So, let’s take this opportunity to pick up where the collective “we” left off. Let’s spend a little bit of time: fasting1, using our skills or resources for the benefit of others, and contemplating God and His creation (which was placed in the care of our most distant ancestors, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden — so the story goes).
This year’s Michaelmas Ember Days begin Wednesday, September 23rd (tomorrow). I’ve put together a little booklet of readings that I hope you might enjoy — mostly poetry, and some Bible verses — called Readings for Michaelmas Embertide (click on title to download). Please feel free to share this post and/or my booklet, non-commercial use only. Thank you.
1 Fasting provides an opportunity to consider God’s gifts and how to use them in moderation. Fasting on Ember Days means one regular meal per day (two smaller meals in morning and evening, no snacks) on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, with the addition of abstaining from meat on Friday.
i “Ember Days, Rogations Days, and Station Churches,” Holy Trinity (German) Catholic Church, www.holytrinitygerman.org, 5/13/15
iii “Ember Days,” an excerpt from A Companion for the Book of Common Prayer by John Henry Hobart, Anglican Bible & Book Society, www.anglicanbible.org, 9/19/12
v “Ember Days” by Tracy Tucciarone, Fish Eaters, www.fisheaters.com, 7/30/06
All night my heart makes its way however it can over the rough ground of uncertainties, but only until night meets and then is overwhelmed by morning, the light deepening, the wind easing and just waiting, as I too wait (and when have I ever been disappointed?) for redbird to sing. — “A Thousand Mornings” by Mary Oliver
I’ve been dreading this birthday for weeks, even though thirty-four is a very minor adjustment from thirty-three. And, yet, something about the even-ness of the number, it just seems so much closer to forty, and forty is unbearable. I’m sure all of you who are over forty and reading this are hating me right now, but does it not seem absolutely impossible even to be thirty-four? I recently spent a couple of days going through all of my old school papers, and it caused me some distress. Surely this little girl, who was me, would be beside herself with despair to learn that that she hadn’t accomplished anything of note by the age of thirty-three (now -four). The whole exercise plunged me into a sort of mid-life crisis.
That’s not to say I regret all of my choices. I’ve been home with my kids for almost six years now, and it is the most precious gift that my husband could have given me. Truthfully, I never want this part of my life to end. But, the end is terrifyingly close! I am thirty-four, and I have no career and no idea what I’m going to do with myself when my son starts school in just a little over a year. I am thirty-four and there are so many things I have not done, and probably never will do, and that is heartbreaking.
Thirty-four feels ominous. Thirty-four feels like panic.
Still, there is this: when I was making my coffee this morning, the sun was shining on the surface of the pond behind our house, and everything was sparkling, and the birds were singing, and it just felt glorious to be alive and to be part of this astonishingly complex and beautiful creation. So, I’m going to tell myself that whatever God has planned for me, I will take it. I will try not to panic or despair, and I will look forward to the moments of jubilation that exist amidst the uncertainty. I will try to keep my heart and mind open to the possibilities that still lie ahead, without dwelling too much on the path not taken. None of that will be easy, but it is my best option.
Today is my birthday — I’m thirty-four — and, despite the ambiguity of my current situation, I am very happy to be here.
* I wrote a post on my birthday last year, too.
Another year, another list of resolutions. This year I’m going for one big goal and a few smaller goals.
// Get rid of 50% of my stuff — Yes, I am insane. (And yes, Damian, I know I said 30% earlier in the week, but now I’m going for half! — here are some reasons why.) I don’t know how feasible this is, but I want to do it badly. After 33 years of life, 11 years of motherhood, 4 years of marriage, and 3 years of home-ownership, I’ve accumulated way too much stuff. And, by “my stuff” I really mean “our stuff.” There isn’t a drawer, shelf, or closet in this house that isn’t cram-jammed with things, and when said house is 960 square feet things get pretty claustrophic pretty quickly. How much of it do I actually need? I can’t tell because I don’t even know what it all is! My goal is not only to clear out the excess stuff, but also to document my decluttering journey here on my blog. (If I hold myself publicly accountable, maybe it will actually happen.) My guess is that it will take several sweeps of the whole house before I can whittle it down by half, but I’m up for the challenge!
// Do the 52 Week Portrait Project (Again) — “A portrait of my children once a week, every week, in 2015.″ I loved doing this project so much last year, and I know that my readers really enjoyed it, too. I’m looking forward to seeing my kiddos and my photography skills grow throughout another year.
// Read all of the books I got for Christmas before next Christmas — I made this my goal in 2013, and it really helped keep me motivated to finish the pile of books on my nightstand. I received an interesting collection this year, which included a lot of non-fiction DNA books (so I can finally understand what my test results mean!), along with a novel, a biography, and a memoir: Ancestral Journeys, by Jean Manco; Trace Your Roots with DNA, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Ann Turner; The Seven Daughters of Eve, by Bryan Sykes; Genetic Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond, by Emily D. Aulicino; Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout; Hetty, by Charles Slack; The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls.
I once read that all mothers should have three books going at once so that they always have something to read, no matter the situation: a “stiff book” (i.e. a challenging one); a moderately easy book (i.e. a biography); and a novel — not “twaddle” — (i.e. Eliot, Dickens, etc). I think that this should apply to all people, not just mothers, and I think my Christmas books fit nicely into those categories and will keep me very busy.
// Write lots of snail mail — This one goes on my list every year because I think it’s important at least to try. My grandmother was the postmaster of North Haverhill, NH for decades (and New Hampshire Postmaster of the Year in 1986, no less!). If nothing else, perhaps a love of all things mail-oriented is in my genes. I’d love to write to you, so please add your address to my postable account (if you haven’t already), and anyone can write to me here any time: Kelli Wilson, PO Box 313, Walpole, NH 03608. If you haven’t heard from me in awhile, you can always bring that to my attention
Happy New Year, everyone! I’d love to hear your resolutions, so please feel free to leave them in the comments.