The Whitsun Ember Days and the gift of Summer

I don't know what it is, but I'd always felt that there was this interconnectedness in nature long ago ... Without it, nothing is sacred any more and we lose that fundamental understanding of the need for harmony - balance - with nature - HRH The Prince of Wales, The Telegraph Magazine, 9th June 2019.

Today is the first of the Whitsun Ember Days, falling at the beginning of summer.  What the Prayer Book terms "The Ember Days at the Four Seasons" mark the beginning of each season with "Days of Fasting, or Abstinence".  As the seasons turn, our dependence upon land and weather, our relationship with day and night, finds expression in days given over to prayer and fasting, seeking blessing for the season that lies ahead.  Here, then, is a way of restoring that "harmony ... with nature" urged by Prince Charles as an essential aspect of renewing our care for the environment, a recognition of our dependence upon the created order.

At Whitsun Embertide, the long days of summer stretch before us, days of warmth, light, growth.  Our dependence upon these finds particular expression in summer.  Rightly, then, do we begin the season with prayer and fasting, mindful of our dependence on the gifts of summer, praying for the blessings of the season, not least the fair weather necessary for a fruitful season.

The Whitsun Ember Days also prepare us to receive the blessings of summer, orienting us to receive these blessings in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving.  The fasting and prayer of the Ember Days is a means of ensuring that we do not enter Summer without due preparation, without hearing the call to have heart and mind opened to the gifts bestowed in this season.  And so we can gaze upon the landscape of Summer with a grateful joy and delight.

Light and wind are running
over the headed grass
as though the hill had
melted and now flowed - Wendell Berry, 'June Wind', in Given: New Poems (2005).

Berry's words bring to mind the Summer imagery of Psalm 72:

They shall fear thee, as long as the sun and moon endureth: from one generation to another.
He shall come down like the rain upon the mown grass: even as the drops that water the earth.
In his time shall the righteous flourish: yea, and abundance of peace, so long as the moon endureth ...
There shall be an heap of corn in the earth, high upon the hills: his fruit shall shake like Libanus - Psalm 72: 5-7, 16.

The richness of the Summer landscape is an icon of the abundant, overflowing blessing of the Kingdom, while these long, bright days of this season are an anticipation of the Heavenly City, for "there shall be no night there".  Whitsun Embertide prepares us to joyfully see and discern this, rather than to engage in an iconoclasm which stands dull and aloof before the icon of Summer.

One petition from the Litany is also particularly resonant during these Ember Days and throughout Summer:

That it may please thee to give and preserve to our use the kindly fruits of the earth, so as in due time we may enjoy them,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

When we arrive at the next Ember Days, in mid-September, Harvest will be under way.  The bounty of the Harvest has a particular dependence upon Summer.  This petition from the Litany - together with the prayers in the Prayer Book tradition 'For Rain' and 'For fair Weather' - are another expression of that "harmony - and balance - with nature" fundamental to a deepened, renewed environmental stewardship.  

That fact that most contemporary Anglican liturgies have an embarrassment about praying for fair weather or rain is an indication of both a sickly theology and, ironically, a failure to reflect contemporary environmental and climate concerns.  It is worth noting here that the equivalent petition in the Common Worship Litany merely asks that we may have the will to rightly use the earth's resources, something quite different indeed to the dependence indicated by 1662.

As the longest day of the year approaches, as we look forward to the months of light, warmth, and growth, may the Whitsun Ember Days prepare us to receive these gifts, and to rejoice in our dependence upon the Triune God.

O Lord, how manifold are thy works: in wisdom has thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches.

(The painting is John Northcote Nash, 'Late Summer, Stoke-by-Nayland'.  The photograph is of Ely Cathedral.)


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