Advent Devotional: Monday, December 15: The Ember Days

In these mid-December days, we hurtle closer and closer to the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year. I have to confess that although I love the ‘feeling’ of the winter season, the shortness of the days and the length of the nights is not my most favorite thing in the world. I much prefer the long days of spring and summer.

As we get deeper into Advent and closer to Christmas, we find that our expectation is more expectant, our waiting is less patient, and our patience is thin. The fullness of Advent is starting to wear on us. Today, less than ten days to go until the arrival of the Christ, we mark the Ember Days—that time when what once might have been a roaring fire of excitement with the arrival of a new season has been reduced to smoldering coals of impatience and uncertainty. It feels like the fire…the warmth…the light…could be extinguished at any moment. It is in these moments that doubts begin to creep in. It feels like we’ve been waiting forever. Will Advent ever end? Will Christ ever arrive?

The Ember Days have been marked the church for as long as anyone can remember. In the mid-5th century, Pope Leo the Great speculated that the apostles themselves instituted the marking of the Ember Days. They were likely a Roman pagan harvest practice that was adopted by the church to ease the conversion from paganism to Christianity. The Romans were a society built on agriculture; and at the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting, religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their gods. The practice adopted by the church was to mark the transitions between seasons; to spend time in prayer and fasting in anticipation of the coming church season.

While fasting is no longer part of our normal church practices, I think there’s something to this idea of purposeful prayer as we draw closer to Christmas and start to feel the full weight of the season of Advent. In the 5th and 6th centuries, people’s lives were marked by the church seasons; people’s day-to-day activities were intimately connected to the movements of the church calendar. That’s not so much the case anymore. We have lives apart from church; we have jobs, kids, partners, houses, friends…the list of things that compete for our time and attention are endless. And yet, if you’ve been following along with this devotional, you’ve been marking time in your life with intentional reflection and prayer. We carve out time in our over-scheduled days to sit…and read…and contemplate…and be quiet…and listen…and pray…

And as one piece of Desert Wisdom suggests, fasting isn’t everything:

Once two brothers went to visit an old man. It was not the old man’s habit, however, to eat every day. When he saw the brothers, he welcomed them with joy, and said: “Fasting has its own reward, but if you eat for the sake of love you satisfy two commandments for you give up your own will and also fulfill the commandment to refresh others.”

While what we do as personal spiritual practices certainly matter and are certainly important, we must not divorce these practices from the world we inhabit everyday. My hope is that these devotionals give you strength and courage for the long journey through Advent, but also cultivate a sense of self that is aware of those around you who may need strength and courage also.


Questions for reflection: What worries or concerns or troubles are weighing on you that you are carrying through this season? How might you hold these while still being mindful of the needs and worries and concerns of those you encounter this season?

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