By Bishop Mark Lawrence
Today is an Ember Day in the Church’s Calendar. So is this Friday and Saturday. Mostly they go unnoticed—you may have never heard of them. Ember Days in the Western Church trace back as far as Bishop Callistus of Rome in A.D. 220. Pope Leo the Great (440-461) gave a series of Ember tide sermons—harvest (fall), vintage (or summer), seedtime (spring) to sanctify the agricultural society of his day. These sermons, timed with the seasons and crops, reflect an era when Christians (and others) lived closer with the earth and the agrarian life.
The Church’s calendar later connected these seasons with other holy occasions; St. Lucy Day (December13th) for the winter or fallow season; Ash Wednesday with spring or seedtime; Pentecost with the vintage season or summer; and Holy Cross Day (September 14th) initiating fall or the harvest. These turnings of the year sanctify the seasons.
This Ember day, coming as it does right before spring, is a season focused on sowing, but it is of interest to more than gardeners and farmers. The agricultural practice of sowing seed became for the biblical writers a metaphor of the spiritual life. Hosea used it figuratively of God sowing Israel in the Promised Land; Jeremiah, for God making Israel fruitful; Zechariah for sowing Israel abroad in the diaspora; and the Psalmist by fashioning his prayer from the metaphor:
“He who goes out weeping, /bearing the seed for sowing,
Shall come home with shouts of joy, /bringing his sheaves with him.”(Ps. 126)
Later Jewish writers told of “God sowing virtues in the soul” much as we approach the Lenten disciplines as cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s work and God’s word in sowing the new life of the Spirit and the rhythms of grace into ever-deeper aspects of our lives.
Jesus uses this image of sowing in his well-known Parable of the Sower to teach about the Kingdom of God. The Sower going out to sow tossed the seed abroad in the field of the world. That is trust God and share the Gospel. Share the Gospel and trust God. So also in other parables such as the Growing Grain and the Mustard Seed the sowing metaphor found a place in his teaching (Mark 4:26-32).
St. Paul, likewise, used the metaphor of sowing to teach essential principles of the spiritual life. As he notes in Galatians 6:7-10: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well- doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Then again, in 2 Corinthians 9:6 he takes up this metaphor afresh: “The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
So, too, with these spring Ember days or seedtime. It is an opportunity to reflect upon the simple but profound truth that there can be many spring times in our lives—days for sowing and planting. Spring is not just a season for the young. Sowing and planting can refer to sowing words of encouragement; to prayers cultivated in private; gifts and alms planted in secret; sharing an experience of God’s faithfulness; writing a letter, email or text to friend; a note to someone going through a difficult time; a hug, a hand on the shoulder, or a greeting on the street.
What are we sowing in the lives of others throughout our day? There can be spring times everywhere—the seed of good words, prayers, and alms. And, of course, the cultivation of virtue in our lives, which will yield the fruitful harvest of a happy life for oneself and for those with whom we share our home.
It may be the summer—autumn—even winter in your life but a season of sowing can still be yours. I think often about what I can sow in the lives of my grandchildren and for the next generations. Remember David’s words in Psalm 71:17-18: “O God, from my youth thou has taught me, and I still proclaim thy wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till I proclaim thy might to all the generations to come.” He is sowing for a harvest he may never live to see but will bless the generations yet to come.
Theodore of Tarsus was a Greek monk who came to Rome to teach in AD 667. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died the Pope turned to Theodore for what he thought would be a transitional primacy. Theodore arrived in Canterbury in 669. He immediately began visiting all the dioceses in England. When he died 20 years later at the age of 89 he had ordained indigenous Anglo-Saxon Bishops and leaders throughout England and established the two fold provincial system of Canterbury and York, which is still in place today. He may have accomplished more for the English Church than any Archbishop in history. Who could have anticipated when he arrived in Rome at 66 that within two years he would have another spring—a great seedtime—a transformative season of sowing? It would bring forth in the next century the high water mark of Anglo-Saxon Christianity influencing all of Europe with its intellectual and missionary thrust.
I could go on to name others who experienced a seedtime in the winter years of life. Take the British Vicar, William Keble Martin, who spent what precious free time he had from his parish work studying flowers. Serving in the parish well into his seventies he simultaneously carried out a passion for gardening. Robert Morley, in his book, The Pleasures of Age (written when the British actor was in his ninth decade), noted that Fr. Marten was 88 when he sowed the seeds of his great avocational pursuit, finally publishing, The Concise British Flora in Color, a bestseller of its day! Like Martin Luther, when asked what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming tomorrow, said, “I would plant a tree.”
What, my friend, are you planting?