-Conway Twitty and Miss Loretta Lynn
We should worry when suddenly something becomes “optional.” For example, when a favorite café or restaurant announces a “neckties optional” policy for gentlemen, you can bet your last breadstick that the polo shirt or, worse still, the t-shirt emblazoned with some too-clever slogan shortly will be the norm. Whether we care to call it entropy or dumbing-down, the result is the same: things sink to the least common denominator. Ultimately, that which makes a place special disappears and the dining adventure grows as cold and sterile as any chain eatery out by the interstate.
I become even more concerned when the “optional” is introduced into the Church such as, for example, when Ember Days were made optional by churches of the Anglican Communion in 1976. Their non-observance, particularly in that they are days of fasting and discipline to sanctify the season, was virtually guaranteed, and, in many quarters they are as dead as Morley’s ghost and colder than the embers burned to ash in the fire grate at chez Scrooge.
That is why I have come to look somewhat askance at wistful journals such as Anglican Embers which is billed as “the Quarterly Journal of the Anglican Use Society published at or near the four embertides of the Church Year.” The motto of the publication is “Keeping the embers of Anglicanism alive in the [Roman] Catholic Church.” That would be the same Roman Catholic Church which has the Anglican Use as an “option” for former Anglicans and has announced that it will expand that “option” to those newly bound across the Tiber to Rome on that most recent lifeboat sent from aboard the barque of Peter.
Yes, the big chain out by the mall where simply everyone goes for standard, un-sumptuous fare has opened the Bistro Anglicano right next to any number of franchised joints—perhaps even inside one of the franchises—to offer a quaint, aesthetically delightful “option” for those with a sophisticated, but perhaps untrained palate. More on that “option” in a bit.
Embers are the glowing, hot coals made of greatly heated wood, coal or other carbon-based material that remain after, or sometimes precede a fire. Embers can burn hot-very hot-nearly as hot and sometimes as hot as the fire which created them. They radiate a substantial amount of heat long after the fire has been extinguished, and if not taken care of properly can rekindle a fire believed to be completely extinguished and can pose a fire hazard to anyone who is not careful.
Curiously, there is little or no mention of embers in Scripture, essentially a reference about them in certain translations of Proverbs (26:21) is about it. Coals, which are hot embers, get a bit more play as long as they are live and burning. For example, in the tenth chapter of Ezekiel, coals of fire are symbolic of the fiery trials, distress, tribulation, and purification. Further, when Isaiah was given a vision of the Lord, a hot, burning coal was used to “purify” him. (Is. 6:5-7). Of course, there is the moment amidst Peter’s denials when the servants and officers who had made a fire of coals; “for it was cold: and they warmed themselves: and Peter stood with them, and warmed himself.” (Jn. 18:18).
A Burning Historical Question
So what about the Ember Days in the Book of Common Prayer? If embers be a Scriptural non-entity, why commemorate remnants of a burning fire, even if they might be still hot?
The origins of the observance appear open to considerable debate. What is generally agreed upon, however, is that the concept of the observance predates the Christian era, and that since Ember Days have never been observed in the Eastern Churches, the pagan origins seem to lie in the West. Some point to Celtic origins, linked to the custom of observing various festivals at three-month intervals. In pagan Rome, offerings were made to various gods and goddesses of agriculture in the hope that the deities would provide a bountiful harvest (the feriae messis in July), a rich vintage (the feriae vindimiales in September), or a productive seeding (the feriae sementivae in December).
From Rome the Ember days gradually spread unevenly through the whole of Western Christendom. In Gaul they do not seem to have been generally recognized much before the 8th century. Their observation in Britain, however, was embraced earlier than in Gaul or Spain, interestingly, and Christian sources connect the Ember Days observations with Augustine, AD. 597. The precise dates appears to have varied considerably however, and in some cases, quite significantly, the Ember Weeks lost their connection with the Christian festivals altogether. Spain adopted them with the Roman rite in the eleventh century. Charles Borromeo introduced them into Milan as late as the sixteenth century.
Ember days in the Western Church, traditionally the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the first Sunday in Lent; Whitsunday; Sept. 14 (Exaltation of the Cross); and Dec. 13 (St. Lucy's Day). They were days of fasting to sanctify the season, and the ember Saturdays were considered especially appropriate for ordinations. The Ember Weeks—the weeks in which the Ember Days occur—are the week between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent, between the first and second Sundays of Lent, the week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and the week beginning on the Sunday after Holy Cross Day (September 14), the liturgical Third Week of September.
In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the people, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan of their celebration. Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year. On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occasions that is best suited to the intentions of the petitioners.
So, why still with the embers?
These days and their accompanying mini-seasons—Embertides—are among the loveliest of the treasures of the medieval church brought to English-speakers through the Book of Common Prayer. In recent centuries of Anglican history, the Ember days have been especially devoted to prayer for the ministry of the Church, for those about to be ordained. In many places,Ember-weeks are the appointed time for ordinands to write letters to their bishops with summaries of their spiritual and educational growth. "Though we know their name has nothing to do with the glowing bits of wood in a fireplace, at each return of an Embertide we think of the Church as a big, holy hearth that needs just the right aim of a bellows to bring its smoldering spots roaring back to bright glowing life."
The fasting of the Quatretemps, called in English Ember days, is kept four times in the year, ‘for divers reasons.’ For the first time, which is in March, is hot and moist. The second, in summer, is hot and dry. The third, in harvest, is cold and dry. The fourth in winter is cold and moist. Then let us fast in March which is printemps for to repress the heat of the flesh boiling, and to quench luxury or to temper it. In summer we ought to fast to the end that we chastise the burning and ardour of avarice. In harvest for to repress the drought of pride, and in winter for to chastise the coldness of untruth and of malice.
The second reason why we fast four times; for these fastings here begin in March in the first week of the Lent, to the end that vices wax dry in us, for they may not all be quenched; or because that we cast them away, and the boughs and herbs of virtues may grow in us. And in summer also, in the Whitsun week, for then cometh the Holy Ghost, and therefore we ought to be fervent and esprised in the love of the Holy Ghost. They be fasted also in September tofore Michaelmas, and these be the third fastings, because that in this time the fruits be gathered and we should render to God the fruits of good works. In December they be also, and they be the fourth fastings, and in this time the herbs die, and we ought to be mortified to the world.
The third reason is for to ensue (imitate or follow after) the Jews. For the Jews fasted four times in the year, that is to wit, tofore Easter, tofore Whitsunside, tofore the setting of the tabernacle in the temple in September, and tofore the dedication of the temple in December.
The fourth reason is because the man is composed of four elements touching the body, and of three virtues or powers in his soul: that is to wit, the understanding, the will, and the mind. To this then that this fasting may attemper in us four times in the year, at each time we fast three days, to the end that the number of four may be reported to the body, and the number of three to the soul.
The fifth reason, as saith John Damascene: in March and in printemps the blood groweth and augmenteth, and in summer coler, in September melancholy, and in winter phlegm. Then we fast in March for to attemper and depress the blood of concupiscence disordinate, for sanguine of his nature is full of fleshly concupiscence. In summer we fast because that coler should be lessened and refrained, of which cometh wrath. And then is he full naturally of ire. In harvest we fast for to refrain melancholy. The melancholious man naturally is cold, covetous and heavy. In winter we fast for to daunt and to make feeble the phlegm of lightness and forgetting, for such is he that is phlegmatic.
The sixth reason is for the printemps is likened to the air, the summer to fire,harvest to the earth, and the winter to water. Then we fast in March to the end that the air of pride be attempered to us. In summer the fire of concupiscence and of avarice. In September the earth of coldness and of the darkness of ignorance. In winter the water of lightness and inconstancy.
The seventh reason is because that March is reported to infancy, summer to youth, September to steadfast age and virtuous, and winter to ancienty or old age. We fast then in March that we may be in the infancy of innocency. In summer
for to be young by virtue and constancy. In harvest that we may be ripe by
attemperance. In winter that we may be ancient and old by prudence and honest
life, or at least that we may be satisfied to God of that which in these four seasons we have offended him.
The eighth reason is of Master William of Auxerre. We fast, saith he, in these four times of the year to the end that we make amends for all that we have failed in all these four times, and they be done in three days each time, to the end that we satisfy in one day that which we have failed in a month; and that which is the fourth day, that is Wednesday, is the day in which our Lord was betrayed of Judas; and the Friday because our Lord was crucified; and the Saturday because he lay in the sepulchre, and the apostles were sore of heart and in great sorrow.
Of Embers, Ashes and Options
For another fire seems to burn brightly not too far away. While it uses much of the same fuel, it does not favor the fuel that burned with the intensity and beauty of that old hearth. Nevertheless, it presents an option that requires far less ardor and energy. It is “easy-lite” and affords a measure of comfort. So, those given the task of tending that home fire of happy memory, take the remainder of the fuel in the hope of rekindling it. In the end, the fuel will be used up and “option” will have its way.
appear to be a plethora of folks who yet try to warm themselves by the fire before they flee, whilst constantly critique the fire-tending! They cannot fathom those who don’t opt for options and fretfully declare coals but ashes despite their obvious glow and warmth. So it has been since the early fathers and martyrs were offered the dying incense embers before the idols of a decaying empire, or Christ Jesus was presented cheap opportunities to bypass the Cross by the ancient adversary
And, what of the bright options generously offered café Anglicans building their theme restaurants...er, communities...in the midst of “the big franchise”? Despite the trappings, they will be part of that big franchise. When the hours of service become inconvenient, the locale of the nearest boutique experience at a distance or the franchise holder puts on a better mealtime show perhaps in Latin with better costume, music and stagecraft, where will patron opt to go? Well, the fact that after more than twenty-five years there remain only ten or so Anglican Use franchisees, the big place out by the mall with its choice of convenient locations and hours,“informal settings” for the folks, and (for the most part) ample free parking seem to have become the preferred option.
Oh, one other thing, when you are a boutique of the major market shareholder, the settings may be familiar, but you have to take everything on the menu. Everything. Some of the familiar time-tested entrees may be gone, but there will be ample additions made up from scratch from time to time by the head chef. One must take these too, with gusto.
O 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
arms that seem to offer safety even where compromise is the price. As we know from the great theologians Conway Twitty and Miss Loretta Lynn:
Love is where you find it,
When you find no love at home
And there’s nothing cold as ashes,
After the fire is gone.