Today is known in the church and has historically been celebrated as Rogation Sunday. It is a day established to begin 3 further days of prayer, fasting and processions before Ascension Day as a means of asking God for a good harvest, protection against natural disasters, and forgiveness of sins. The word rogation comes from the latin rogare which means ‘to ask’. So it was historically very important to agricultural communities in England to ask God to bless their endeavours.
I was wondering this week why Rogation days, not just Rogation Sunday but the following 3 days of prayer and processions fell out of favour. Why as a community do we no longer mark this occasion and ask for God’s blessing on things we rely on. It seems to me it would be a valuable tradition in the current social climate. It is after all a tradition which relies on the words of Psalm 98 which we read this morning to set a tone of celebration and thanksgiving
‘Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him’
That seems like a really great message for a nation that needs to be cheered up a bit and reminded of what we have!!
So why did Rogation Days go out of fashion. There are lots of answers but the one that struck me came through a rather comical account of it’s demise. It is comical but has an important message to us because it reminds us of the message John wrote and which we also read this morning ..
It is the spirit with which we do things that is most important .. in the words of John’s letter ..
‘it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth ‘
or in the more memorable words of the song ‘it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it’ The spirit in which we do things determines their outcome and Rogation Sunday fell out of favour because the spirit in which it was celebrated went wrong.
You see one in medieval England the Rogation Days were observed with processions that began in the local church and proceeded to outline the boundaries of the parish, pausing occasionally for the recitation of prayers. The processions became known as beating the bounds and priests and cross-bearers led these long walks in the countryside. People were expected to fast before the procession, and to treat the event as a sober religious exercise rather than a holiday in the countryside. But slowly Nevertheless, people tended to turn the event into an expression of pride in their parish. In many locations adults and children who took part in these excursions were rewarded with coins, sweets, fruit, nuts, bread, cheese, or ale along the way. And very slowly this tradition became an occasion with an excess of “team spirit” which led some parish groups to attack others that they encountered. It became like a modern day football derby with local communities enforcing their boundaries. The youngsters accompanying the procession were often tossed into streams that divided one parish from another, or forced to climb hedges, walls, or even houses built over the boundary lines. Not quite in the spirit of Rogation celebration as was intended.
And this highlights the problem that Jesus reminded the religious people of his time about again and again. He warned the Jewish leaders over and over that unless religious practice is observed in love and the right Spirit .. the Spirit of truth .. it becomes pointless as Rogation days did. In the Jewish world Jesus mentioned the sacrifices made at the Temple and taught God does not want this kind of sacrifice of animals and grain but the sacrifice of a contrite spirit and a loving and devoted heart.
I think we would, as a community, benefit from a tradition which reminds us of all GOd has given us and of our dependency on God for providing our needs .. but only if we embrace this tradition in the right spirit. Unless we do anything in love and contrition and devotion it becomes meaningless and worse than that can become an expression of the bad things in the human condition. Let us look to live out our religion with a Spirit of truth that testifies to the goodness of God.