Just prior to Christmas the Anglican Communion still observes Ember Days, as it will on three more occasions during the Christian Year. These are some of the oldest days observed by Christians, and like most Christian feasts and fasts have their origins in pagan observances. Originally these were known as Quatretemps, as instituted by Pope Callistus in the early third century as times for fasting and thanksgiving for the benefits of nature at the beginning of each cycle of the agricultural season when the pagans observed their rites: in spring when the seed was sown; in summer for growth of crops; in autumn for successful harvesting, and in winter for fallowing.
By the time of Gelasius at the end of the fifth century these times became associated with ordination and ministry, which is its purpose today. So when Augustine arrived in England in the very early 6th century he brought this observance with him. Ere long these special times became known as ymber days, from the old English, ymbrem, meaning course or circuit, hence rotation of seasons.
By the end of the first millennium these days had been assigned to be particular days in each quarter: the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after St. Lucy's day (13th December), Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday and Holy Cross Day (14th September) in the Western Church (They have never been kept in the Eastern Church).
As intimated these Ember days are now observed as times of prayer and fasting for the sacred ministry of the Church and for Ordination, one of the seven sacraments of the Church. Ordination bestows various gifts to ordinands for their office. In the first rung of this ministry is the diaconate when deacons receive grace to serve and "to assist the Prieste in divine service, and speciallye when he ministreth the holye Communion, and to help him in the distribution thereof, and to reade holye scriptures and Homilies in the congregation, and to instructe the youthe in the Catechisme, [and] to Baptise." He is to inform the parish priest through his visiting of "the sick, poor, and impotent people of the parish", and he can also preach, "if he be admitted thereto by the bishop."
The second rung is the priesthood. Mostly these days the diaconate is the probationary for the priesthood (although there are some permanent deacons). When a bishop lays hands on deacons as the representative of Christ they receive the Holy Spirit for the office of a priest. "Receive the Holy Spirit: whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven: and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained: and be thou a faithful dispenser of the word of God, and of his holy Sacraments."
Although all Christians belong to the royal priesthood of God as the first Petrine letter tells us, priests are given a ministry special, which sets them apart from the laity. Thus they alone can celebrate the Eucharist, hear confessions and pronounce absolution, anoint the sick, exorcise and pronounce blessings.
The third rung is the episcopacy. The Catholic Church upholds what is known as the apostolic succession and thereby her bishops trace their beginnings back to Christ and the Apostles. When a priest is consecrated by at least three bishops he receives the Holy Spirit for the office of a bishop that make him superior to a priest in four areas: administration, discipline, guardianship of the faith and his authority to confirm and ordain. Nevertheless bishops are essentially shepherds for their flock, both priests and people, and should be "like the great shepherd, the Good Shepherd, the Prince of Shepherds, Who was ... 'a Shepherd of souls.'"
All these ministers are exhorted to live holy and prayerful lives, but these do not affect the validity of the office or the sacraments. "Good it were, and much to be wished, they were holy and learned all; but if they be not, their office holds good though." "This breath" which ministers receive is "not into them for themselves, yet goeth into and through every act of their office or ministry, and by them conveyeth His saving grace into us all." The office is permanent. Just as a Christian cannot be unbaptised so a priest cannot be unordained, but he may be deprived of permission to exercise his priestly powers.
Embertide is also a time when Christians pray for the clergy (we should ideally do it everyday) and for "an increase of vocations to the sacred ministry" and to the religious life. A prayer for embertide.
Merciful Father guide the bishops of our Church that they make wise choice of ordinands. To those being ordained at this time give abundant grace so that their lives and teachings may glorify your name, and manifest Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Mediator.
After the Vatican II Council, the Roman Church discontinued the observance of these days.
Quotations from L. Andrewes.