Winter Days, Advent Embertide

We went to the woods for holly
On days that were five below;
The river a glass slide, the skies such pale blue
The world was a kind of white ...

We came back from the glades with hands
All red and raw, words slurred.
Somewhere a muffled snowball sun;
In the trees only crows and quiet - from Kenneth Steven, 'One Winter', in Evensong (2011).

Today is the first of the Advent Ember Days.  As I write this, I am looking out on a cold, gloomy afternoon.  Household lights are needed throughout the day.  Sunset will be at 4pm.  This is Winter.

The prayer, fasting, and abstinence of Advent Embertide ensures that we enter into Winter not grudgingly, not overwhelmed, not distracted.  "The Ember Days at the Four Seasons" (to quote the Prayer Book's 'Days of Fasting, or Abstinence') prepares us to receive each new season as the gift of the One who "appointed the moon for certain seasons" (Ps.104:19).  This is no less so with Winter.  Yes, as Donne so memorably declared, these are days when "life is shrunk, Dead and interr'd".  But, we and the land need this rest after the glories of High Summer and the riches of Autumn.  A retreat into domesticity and a quieter pace prepares us for a new year and the change in routine which Spring will herald. 

Advent Embertide also recalls us to a deepened sense of dependence as we enter into Winter.  Inclement weather, difficult driving conditions, cold and flu season, the financial challenges that can come with additional household heating costs, the increased demands on public services, the challenges faced by the elderly, the poor, the homeless: the Ember Days are rooted in the physical and the practical, and these concerns can and should be gathered up in our prayer and abstinence during Advent Embertide, shaping what love of neighbour means during Winter.

These Advent Ember Days also fall, of course, as festive celebrations occur ahead of Christmas Day.  Advent Embertide requires no Scrooge-like response to these early celebrations (we can leave not enjoying Christmas festivities to latter day Puritans), but these days do have the virtue of reminding us of the Advent call to penitence in the closing days of the liturgical season.  Acts of abstinence during these Ember Days can embody the call of Advent and kindle in us a right spirit as we prepare to celebrate the Lord's Nativity.

we beseche thee, geve eare to our prayers, 
and by thy gracious visitacion 
lighten the darkenes of our hearte, 
by our Lorde Jesus Christe - Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, BCP 1559.

(The painting is John Northcote Nash, 'Winter Evening, Wormingford', 1967.)


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