Ember Days are a little recognized, little understood series of holy days that also happen to be the most frequent days in the Catholic calendar. For those who don’t know, the Ember Days are fasting days that occur multiple times a year around the changing of the seasons. They fall on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and are times of fasting and abstinence. Because of this, most people don’t probably notice them unless they say the Daily Offices or go to daily mass where a specific gospel and epistle are read for the day.
I have a particular fondness for the Ember Days because they’re these little unseen days that have a fascinating role in the Church calendar. They used to be the days on which ordinations took place, which is no longer the case in our modern times. But it’s a wonderful fact of history that gives these days particular significance. It is useful to keep this history in mind when reading the lessons for these three days, half of which are from Ezekiel. In these readings, the prophet gives some of the sternest warnings for priests and other ministers of the Church that can be found anywhere in the Bible and which are still relevant to our own day.
You’re Doing It Wrong
Ezekiel is basically called by God to tell the leaders of Israel that their not doing their jobs and the readings for the Ember Days reflect this. There is too much to talk about all of them, so I’m just going to highlight two verses that give the broad message. The first is from Ezekiel 34:
“Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (verse 2, KJV)
This verse contains an important point about the role of religious ministers. This should be a self-effacing ministry because the point is to serve others. It’s not about wearing fancy clothes and being famous for your sermons. Very often, ministers will work in obscurity, in harsh conditions, and even in poverty. As the child of a minister, I know firsthand how thankless this job can sometimes be. And I also know just how important it is.
Because of its importance, the warnings of Ezekiel are echoed in the ordination rites of many religious denominations. One Anglican form of the ordination for priests says,
“Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. … and see that ye never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until ye have done all that lieth in your, according to your bounden duty…” (1928 Book of Common Prayer, p. 540)
Obviously, the ministry is one of the most sacred and ponderous duties to undertake and it requires much of those who go into it. This warning and those of Ezekiel are proof of this fact.
But we all know that very often, those in ministry fall terribly short of their charge. There are too many cases of child sexual abuse by priests for us to ignore that fact. We all know that priests fail.
Ezekiel knew it, too, and he talks about the outcome of this failure for the members of the Church:
“And as for my flock, they eat that which ye have trodden with your feet; and they drink that which ye have fouled with your feet.” (Ezekiel 34:19, KJV)
When our ministers fail in their duty, the lay members of the Church suffer for it. Failure to live up to the duties of the ministry is basically to fail the entire Church and to sully the spirit of it that we all take part of. There is no doubt that the Church has been sullied by sexual abuse scandals, but it goes beyond the mere worldly reputation of the institution. The spiritual life of the Church itself has also been damaged and is still waiting to be healed.
This brings to light another failing of the ministers of the Church because the have failed in many respects to adequately address the issue. In Australia, this is very much in the news as the role of Cardinal Pell in seeing justice done is being called in to question. Cardinal Pell is the Pope’s newly appointed Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and he has been called by a royal commission to give evidence on child sex abuse. Since he was instrumental in the legal matters of such cases, he has been greatly criticised for seeming to obstruct justice for victims. I cannot speak to the details of the matter, only about what has been reported, but when something like this happens, the leaders of the Church have a responsibility to see justice done and to help the victims of abuse. So far, it seems like they just haven’t lived up to that duty.
Christianity is the faith of the forgotten and oppressed. To oppress others is not the spirit of our faith. Instead, we as Christians are called to be healers for the world. When our leaders hurt others, they hurt all of us in a spiritual sense. During these Ember Days, I hope and pray that the ordained leaders of the Church keep in mind the words of Ezekiel and put them into practice in their ministries. But I also hope that people everywhere do what they can to support the larger ministry of the Church, which is to serve the needy and oppressed. As Christians, we are all called to that form of ministry and, therefore, Ember Days are for us as much as for our priests. Because this calling is everyone’s Christian duty, Ezekiel could as easily have been warning us as he is our priests.