The orgin of the Ember Days is so obscure and disputed that time would be wasted in trying to untangle it. Suffice it to say that the days were very anciently celebrated, perhaps as early as the third century, but that they have never been observed in the Eastern Church, only in the Roman and other parts of the Western Church.
The word “Ember” itself is said to be derived from the German word “Quatember”, meaning quarterly, which in turn came from a Latin term for the Four Seasons. However that may be, the days do indeed occur four times a year, during each of the four seasons, which they undoubtedly originally marked in some way.
In Anglicanism, as in Roman Catholicism, these days are celebrated on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday which follow (1) the First Sunday in Lent, (2) Whitsunday, or the Feast of Pentecost, (3) September 14 (Holy Cross Day) and (4) December 13th. This last date is the Feast of St. Lucy, celebrated today in Sweden as a Festival of Light, marking the turn of the year, when the sun begins its long journey northwards; thus the day is a clear seasonal milestone.
In Anglicanism, these days are set apart as days of prayer for those who are to be admitted to the Holy Orders, days of supplication to God that He will call many to the sacred ministry and implant in their hearts an unyielding zeal and devotion to the faith and ministry. Certainly we need many such, men of clear intellect, pure heart and humble servanthood, as we seek to preserve and strengthen the faith which we have inherited.
We need to be reminded, too, that these days are designated by the Book of Common Prayer as days of fasting “on which the Church requires such a measure of abstinence as is more especially suited to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion”. These days, now so often honored in the breach, and yet so central to our continued existence in the faith, ought to be restored to active observance by our attendance upon the Holy Communion and our fasting and prayers for the ministry.