Sunday, May 05, 2013

Rogation Days

Here's Full Homely Divinity on these three pre-Ascension days.  We had a bit of a "Rogation Sunday" today (as suggested below):  special vestments were hung and worn; special collects read; holy water sprinkled round about the grounds; kids planted flowers and trees.
Beating the bounds in Victorian London
The Rogation Days, the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day, originated in Vienne, France (not Vienna, Austria), in 470 after a series of natural disasters had caused much suffering among the people. Archbishop Mamertus proclaimed a fast and ordered that special litanies and prayers be said as the population processed around their fields, asking God's protection and blessing on the crops that were just beginning to sprout. The Latin word rogare means "to ask", thus these were "rogation" processions. In an agricultural society, closely connected with the soil and highly vulnerable to the uncertainties of nature, this was an idea that took root quickly, and the custom spread around Europe and over to Britain. The Sunday before the Rogation Days came to be considered a part of Rogationtide (or "Rogantide") and was known as Rogation Sunday. The Gospel formerly appointed for that day was from John 16, where Jesus tells his disciples to ask, and ye shall receive.

Beating the bounds in Lambeth, 1961
While technically they were days of fasting, for which they were also known as "Grass Days," for the meatless meals that were enjoined, the Rogation Days developed into a popular festival, celebrating the arrival of spring and serving other purposes, as well. Other names for these days include "Gang Days," from the Anglo-Saxon gangen, "to go," and "Cross Days," both titles signifying the processions with crosses and banners around the countryside. In some parishes, the procession took more than one day and the whole business became an occasion for several days of picnics and revels of all sorts, particularly among those who trooped along at the fringes of the religious aspects of the procession.

Beating the bounds in Claverton, 1999
The route of the walk was around the boundaries of the parish, which was a civil as well as a religious unit. Thus, the processions were useful in teaching people, particularly the young, their parish boundaries. Known as "beating the bounds," the processions customarily stopped at boundary marks and other significant landmarks of the parish, such as a venerable tree, or a great rock, or perhaps a pond. The priest would read the Gospel and perhaps affix a cross to the landmark. Then the boys of the parish would suffer some indignity intended to help them remember the spot. Boys were bumped about against rocks and trees, thrown into the water, held upside-down over fences, thrown into bramble patches, or beaten with willow wands--and then given a treat in compensation. In later times, the marchers beat the boundary marker with the willow wands, beating the bounds, rather than the boys.
The reminder of boundaries had another important impact on communal life. In a poem by the 20th century American Robert Frost, the poet's neighbor asserts that "good fences make good neighbors." Boundaries are often very important in relationships. As members of parishes beat the bounds, they would often encounter obstructions and violations of boundaries. The annual beating of the bounds provided an opportunity to resolve boundary issues. It also led to the tradition of seeking reconciliation in personal relationships during Rogationtide. The sharing of a specially brewed ale, called Ganging Beer, and a mysterious pastry, called Rammalation Biscuits, at the end of the walk was a good way of sealing the reconciliation.
George Herbert gave the following good reasons to beat the bounds: 1) a blessing of God for the fruits of the field; 2) Justice in the preservation of the bounds; 3) Charitie, in living, walking and neighbourliy accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if they be any; 4) Mercie, in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of largess which at that time is or oght be made.

The custom of placing crosses on boundary markers and in the fields seems to derive from the fact that the Rogation Days fall near the old feast day of the Invention (or Finding) of the Cross. Crouchmas ("Cross-mass") was on May 3rd and it was the custom on that day to place crosses in fields and gardens as a way of blessing them and praying for them to be fruitful. While full Rogation processions are rare today, the blessing of crosses to be planted in the fields of the faithful is one of the ways the older customs survive.

Keeping the Rogation Days Today

Much of modern society has lost its direct connection with the soil, but this psychological distance does not lessen the actual dependence of all people on the gifts of nature. Furthermore, responsible stewardship of all of these gifts is increasingly being recognized as the concern of all people. Days of thanksgiving, harvest festivals, and the like are observed in many churches at the end of the growing season. The Rogation Days at the time of planting have become little more than a liturgical footnote in the American Prayer Book, but in these times of growing ecological concern the Church would do well to revive them.

Practically speaking, the revival of Rogation observances is likely to involve more people if they are part of a Sunday service. It should be added that, while the Sixth Sunday of Easter is the traditional day, some adaptation to the local season and climate would be appropriate. After all, there is little point in blessing fields and seeds for planting at the time when crops are being harvested in the southern hemisphere. Similarly, there will be many places where farms and rural countryside will not be the locale of processions and blessings. But even in urban churches there should be an awareness of our dependence upon the fruits and resources of the earth, of the ways in which resources are wasted, of the dangers of pollution, and of our responsibility for honest labor and industry.

A Rogation observance in church, then, can be the opportunity for a homily on the Christian stewardship of natural resources. Various symbols can be introduced into the liturgy to reinforce this theme. A procession around the whole parish might not be a possibility, but a procession around the church grounds, a local park, or a parishioner's farm would be appropriate. Parishioners can bring their own garden seeds to be blessed and crosses can be blessed for parishioners to take home and plant in their fields or gardens. Making the crosses would be a good project for the children of the church school or individual families. If the children made Easter gardens, the plants in them can be transplanted to either the parish garden or their family gardens at home, adapting some of the prayers below. Even though the Sunday readings no longer keep the Rogation theme, the hymns can. Hymns and canticles that fit the Rogation theme include, "O Jesus crowned with all renown", "Fairest Lord Jesus", "We plow the fields and scatter", "Now the green blade rises", "O worship the King", Benedicite, omnia opera, and Psalm 65.

Here are some elements and prayers for a Rogationtide expansion of the Eucharistic liturgy on Rogation Sunday or any day designated for the observance of Rogation themes:

At the Offertory

Expand upon the usual Offertory of the Eucharist. Seven elements might be presented by members of the congregation and placed upon the Altar:
money - the regular tithes and offerings;
bread - preferably a home-baked loaf (click here for some recipes);
wine - perhaps a bottle of table wine, rather than the usual Eucharistic wine;
soil - a wooden or earthenware bowl of soil;
water - in a clear vessel so that it may be seen;
seed - a bowl of seed, or a basket of various packaged seeds (notice might be
given beforehand for people to bring their own garden seed to be blessed
either at the Eucharist or at the procession afterwards);
crosses - a basket of small wooden or paper crosses.

When the elements are brought forward, or after they have been presented, sing this hymn to the tune Lancashire ("Lead on, O King eternal"):
We pray thee, therefore, Father, to take these gifts of ours
Ourselves, our lives, our labors, our thoughts, our words, our powers;
Though they all be unworthy to place upon Thy board
We know Thou wilt accept them through Jesus Christ our Lord.
As each element is received, an appropriate prayer is said:

At the presentation of money:
Accept, O Lord, our gifts of money, which represent the business of our daily lives:  Use them for the work of your Holy Church to carry out your mission; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

At the presentation of bread:
Almighty God our Savior, who in the carpenter's shop at Nazareth labored for daily bread: Accept this bread which is both the fruit of our work and the satisfaction of our needs, and so bless all our industry and necessity; for your sake. Amen.

At the presentation of wine:
We offer you, O Lord, this wine, the fruit of the vine: We pray that you will accept it, that it may become for us the Blood of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

At the presentation of soil:
Almighty Creator, we offer to you this soil in token of the fields and forests of our land on which we ask your blessing: We ask that the soil may be wholesome, the crops good, and that we may be faithful stewards of your mercies; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

At the presentation of water:
O God, who brought forth life out of the waters of creation: Bless this offering of water and grant that there may be sufficient water to raise up good crops and to serve the needs of our industries; and may we drink of the Living Water to bring forth the fruit of godly living from the soil of our souls; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

At the presentation of seeds:
O Heavenly Father, who by your wondrous providence made all grass, herbs, and trees, each with seed after its own kind: Accept and bless our offering of seed to be planted throughout our parish, that the life in all seed sown may burst forth into fullness of its kind, according to your good creation, and especially the seed of your Word; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

At the presentation of crosses:
O God, whose blessed Son has promised that we need only to ask in order to receive: Accept and bless these crosses, and grant that in the fields where we place them they may stand as a sign of our unfailing trust in your bounty and as encouragement to all who see them to put their faith in your providence; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Rogation procession in Bedford, 1952

There's more at the link.

We sang some of the hymns suggested above, including "O Jesus crowned with all renown" - the one and only "Rogation Days" hymn in the 1982 hymnal.  And, a favorite of mine,  the beautiful "Fairest Lord Jesus"; it's sung in the video below by the children of Truro Cathedral.  (You can hear both of  these hymns on the May 5, 2013 service of Compline podcast from St. Mark's Seattle.  Obviously, they were celebrating Rogation Days, too!)  

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