For most of us Ember Days go unnoticed. With the exception of seminarians writing letters to bishops telling them of their progress, Ember Days have all but disappeared in the life of the Church. Even in farming communities living closer to the earth and to the cycles of seed-time, vintage and harvest there is precious little attention given to Ember days. Such is our loss; for knowledge of the seasons has much to teach us and not just for lessons about the soil. Last week on September 18th, 20th, and 21st the Church’s calendar rubrics noted what used to be the “vintage” Ember days—that is the season of the grape harvest. As a native Californian I remember it well—the grape harvest that is not the Ember days.
What brought this to mind was our latest diocesan Clergy Day. Not that we in the Diocese of South Carolina are in what I would call a “vintage season”—though certainly some may feel this past year they have been like grapes in the wine press troddened and squeezed. No, as I looked out on the assembled brothers and sisters, rather than seeing brethren in the vintage month, what came to mind was that more than a few had passed through or perhaps were still in a fallow season.
Seed-time, vintage, harvest and winter (the fallow days) are seasons the farmer knows well. When I was in college I spent summers and even one fall working in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley—driving down rows of cotton with a tractor tilling the ground or spraying pesticides in June and July, and later harvesting with a cotton-picker in October and November. Different yet, were August days in a dug potato or sugar beet field with a D-8 tracklayer pulling a land-plane to level the field or a ripper to break up the hard-pan. Before the days when most tractors or tracklayers had air conditioned cabs it was hot and dusty work in mid-summer. The latter was to prepare the land for a fallow season (even if it was brief): giving to the earth the plow and harrow but not the seed.
The fallow season is what I see during the winter months in South Carolina as I drive along rural roads in December and January on parish visitations. Fields plowed and harrowed and left unsown as the cold rain and darker days fall upon the earth. The land left idle for a season. But just last Monday I saw up near Barnwell harvested cornfields with stalks sheered 12 inches off the ground and left waiting for another season. It is all rather Biblical, for Shabbat was a solemn rest for the land: a Sabbath to the Lord when human hand was not to till or work the soil; the earth was to be saved from the hardness of man’s exhausting labor; a reminder that the earth was not just for tilling—it was holy.
There is, spiritually speaking, fallow seasons for the soul which of course can come at any time of year. Two of the plowshares God uses in this season are sorrow and loss. With these furrowing blades God harrows the soul. Elijah knew such a season by the brook Cherith. (I Kings 17:1 ff) Such seasons may bring days of isolation. It is part of God’s formative and maturing work in our lives. Frankly, it is important to know one doesn’t have to be in a lonely place to experience God’s isolating grace. This summer has been for me an Ember season that was all out of rhythm with the months of the year. I have been more in the season of winter, the days of December (without Christmas); not a winter of discontent, but a fallow season; and not by choice nor for rest. Plowed and harrowed and left unsown, finding it difficult to write anything, I took comfort and encouragement in the psalmist’s words: “The plowmen plowed upon my back and made their furrows long.” (Ps 129:3)
A fallow season is one of the ways God leads us to or forces upon us a reflective evaluation of our lives and our work in order to prepare us for what is next. This may happen several times in a Christian’s life. God therein leads us to a deeper trust and dependence upon him and upon his Word and Spirit. And perhaps more gracious still it may yield a deeper relationship and intimacy with Christ. St. Paul knew such harrowing of soul and from within such a season wrote these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort [encouragement], who comforts [encourages] us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort [encourage] those who are in any affliction with the comfort [encouragement] with which we ourselves are comforted [encouraged] by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5) Take your pick which translation you prefer—comfort or encouragement—for there are solid arguments for each and a need perhaps for both.
During fallow seasons it is good to remember that such days or months prepare us for seedtime, whether for the soil or in our life. In fact the agricultural practice of sowing seed soon became for the Biblical writers a metaphor for the spiritual life. Hosea used it figuratively of God sowing Israel in the Promised Land; Jeremiah to describe God making Israel fruitful; later Jewish writers to compare “God sowing virtues in soul;” and Jesus employed it for the Kingdom. Such a season needs to be seen as the doorway for tomorrow. We realize in such times that to wait, to sacrifice or merely to ploddingly do one’s duty may be all that one can do. But in God’s grace it is enough. The days will slowly lengthen, the sun’s angle will lean longer light upon the earth, the door will open, and the Sower will go out. It may be hard to remember when the days are dark and a cold rain falls that it is a part of his design; yet it is a preparation for the soul that will again sing joyously:
“Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
wheat that in the dark earth many days has lain;
love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.
Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain.
He that for three days in the grave had lain,
Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.
When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been;
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.”
Hymn 204 (1982 Hymnal)