Sermon: Ember Days

The podcast is available here.

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Today, in the liturgical calendar, can be celebrated in one of two ways.  The first is a feria, which means “day of rest” or even “holiday.”  It is not the feast day of a Saint or a prescribed fast day, and is seen as an extension of the previous Sunday, so the readings for today could be the same as we had for the Third Sunday of Advent.  

The second way to celebrate today is that of an Ember Day.  Ember Days occur four times a year and are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of a week.  They fall after the First Sunday of Lent, the Day of Pentecost, Holy Cross Day, and the Feast of St. Lucy, which just so happens to have been last Thursday.  How did these Ember Days come about?

From the Acts of the Apostles, you’ll recall that Paul and Silas went to Athens on a missionary journey.  While there, they saw all the various gods that the Greeks worshiped, which greatly distressed them.  Given the opportunity to speak, Paul did what he did best.  He proclaimed the Gospel message.  “Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, To an unknown god.’”  He then said, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”  The Athenians did not have in mind the One True God when they built that altar, but Paul, instead of instructing them to destroy it, appropriated it for the Kingdom of God.  Christianity quite often does this.  Takes something that is important to unbelieving cultures and attaches Christian significance to it.  The same is true of Ember Days.

Before the faith had spread, the unbelievers throughout Rome worshipped various gods and at certain times of the year would hold festivals to these gods, which were generally based on the lunar cycle.  The Church, instead of denouncing the festivities, simply redefined them in Christian terms and they now have become days of fasting and prayer, something of a mini Lent.  As they were originally associated with the harvest, they have also now taken on special significance for the harvest of souls and the call to ordained ministry.  You can see how that theme of harvest was evident in our Gospel reading: “I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.”

What does all this mean for us today?  We can set these days aside for fasting and prayer, but we can also focus our prayers on the calling of new persons to ordained ministry.  There is a constant need for clergy and if someone came along today and said they wanted to be a priest, with all the discernment and study that goes with the process, it would be at least five years before they could be ordained.  As Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  Ask the Lord to raise up new clergy to meet the future needs of the church.  

Let us pray: God, the source of creation and love, You invite each of us to serve you through the life which is your gift.  May your grace encourage men and women to heights of holiness through service to the church as priests, deacons, sisters, brothers, and lay ministers.  Make us instruments to encourage others to give of themselves and challenge us each to do the same.  Amen.

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