Monday, May 18, 2020

Rogation Sunday

The Sixth Sunday of Easter / Year A
John 14:15-21

St. Paul’s in Akron, where I was welcomed into the Episcopal Church, has a tradition of celebrating on Rogation Sunday.  At the end of the service, a bag-piper enters from the rear of the church and begins to play Amazing Grace (at first it sounds like someone is strangling a large duck, but eventually it begins to sound like music, if you like bagpipes).  A procession forms and the piper leads the congregation outside to a place on the parish grounds where something new has been planted – typically a tree or some shrubs.  The congregation (a couple hundred people in all) gathers round and the Rector says a few prayers to bless the good earth of the property and all the living things on it.  Afterward there is more bag-piping, lemonade is served on the lawn, and a good time is had by all.  I had never even heard of Rogation Day, but it instilled in me something of my new Anglican heritage – the love of a good celebration.

The word rogation comes from a Latin word meaning “to ask”, as in to petition God through prayer.  Rogation Day prayers are tied to the beginning of the planting season.  Ancient Romans celebrated a pagan festival called Robigalia each year on April 25.  They processed out of the city to a certain location where a dog and a sheep were sacrificed in an attempt to save the newly planted crops from blight.  In 598 Pope Gregory I instituted a Christian festival to supplant the pagan one.  The faithful went out in procession, but at a certain point veered off and went to St. Peter’s Basilica for a celebration of the mass.  This April 25 date came to be known as the Major Rogation.

Minor Rogation Days began in France some 100 years earlier when, in 470, St. Mamertus of Vienne held special prayer services in response to a series of natural disasters and several years of poor crop yield.  The services used the Great Litany to petition God’s protection from earthquake, famine, pestilence, plague, dying unprepared, and (as Monty Python may say) all things that go bump in the night.  The litany covers everything except the possibility of an alien invasion.  Rogation Days now fall on the three days before the Feast of the Ascension (which is this coming Thursday, so Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday).  Before all of this begins, today is celebrated in some places as Rogation Sunday.

Leave it to the people of England to put a distinctly Anglican twist on all of this.  It became the custom in England to walk the boundaries of the parish on Rogation Sunday – not the church yard, mind you, the entire region associated with the parish.  The priest (vested), wardens, choir, and parishioners set out in procession around the edges of the parish.  Two important things occurred during this excursion.  First, prayers were offered for the land, the crops, the water, and the people.  It was a powerful and poignant way to invoke God’s blessings on the planting season and coming months.  What it prays for at the beginning of the year Thanksgiving Day gives thanks for at the end. 

And second, from time to time the procession stopped so the vicar could point out the exact boundary line.  At these locations (a tree, a rock, a stream), in order to drive home their significance, the boys received a beating.  Inside the parish limits one was safe, but outside of it one was a greater risk.  This came to be known as the beating of the bounds.  It was like how many of us grew up when our parents set the limits by telling us we could ride our bike as far as Jimmy’s house or as far as Doppler Street, but no father.  And, if word got home you had crossed the bounds a beating was sure to follow!  

When I first encountered Rogation Sunday it struck me as a quaint little way to pretend we are English.  But over the years its spirituality has grown on me. 

First, it reminds us all we have comes from God.  As the old saying goes,

All we can do is worth nothing
unless God blesses the deed;
Vainly we hope for the harvest-tide
till God gives life to the seed;
Yet nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

These days it also reminds us how our common life depends upon each other’s labor.  Over these past two months we have become much more aware of this.  We have realized the shelves at the supermarket don’t just stock themselves.  We depend not only on God.  Our interconnectedness means we depend on each other.  You must do your part.  I must do mine.  And so we commit ourselves to the well-being of one another.  I cannot survive without you.  And you cannot survive without me.

Rogation Sunday, with all its varied prayers for protection and blessing, speaks to the fragility of life, an awareness we have today which now feels almost overwhelming.  The Celtic notion of the presence of God has taken on new meaning:

Christ before us.
   Christ behind us.
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us.
Christ over us.
Let all around us be Christ.

The Rogation Day’s focus on boundaries has its own spirituality.  Having a sense of place and the sense of knowing you and those you love are safe where you are is so very necessary.  This is the place God has put you and here all we be well and in all manner of things all will be well.  Knowing who is with you – your neighbors – is also essential.  You are not alone.  You belong to others and they belong to you and we are in this together.  I will help you when you need help and you will help me when I need help.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John we hear Jesus’ promise,

I will not leave you alone. 
I will not leave you as orphans. 
I will send another to be with you. 

These words anticipate Thursday’s celebration of the Ascension when Jesus leaves this world to return to his rightful place with the Father and it anticipates the Day of Pentecost two Sundays from now when we celebrate the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Rogation Sunday reminds us we are not alone in the struggles and challenges we face.  In the midst of life’s uncertainties, we are not left to our own devices or to something as futile as those pagan sacrificial rituals of old.  We are engaging the One who Peter describes as “the God who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth…  the One in whom we live and move and have our being.”  It is our deeply heartfelt belief this God cares about us and responds to our needs and our requests.  And to this God we lift up our voices and offer praise.