14 May 2023 – Rogation Sunday
As is traditional for the 6th Sunday of Easter, today is also known as Rogation Sunday. It is easy to see from our bible readings today that we are coming to the end of the Easter season – the forty days to Ascension finishing this week, as we celebrate Ascension Day with the rest of the deanery in an evening service in Wincanton Church on Thursday, and we do hope that a good number of you will be able to attend. Ascension day was one of my favourite days when I attended a church primary school in Surrey, as we were required to come to school before moving to the church next door for a service, after which we had the rest of the day off. I doubt if my reasons for enjoying it were altogether pious, but the walk to and from school and the church was through the fields, so I did observe a little of the Rogation tradition as well. I also used to enjoy the celebration of Rogation Sunday when I lived and worshipped in Milborne Port, as we would traditionally hold an early evensong service at Goathill church – or to be precise and if the weather permitted, just outside it, in the farm yard, before being treated to a very excellent tea in the farm house!
The tradition of observing Rogation at this time started in about 470 ad and was instigated by St Mamertus of Vienna, probably to replace a Roman festival that normally happened at this time, at which processions were made into the farmlands, and sacrifices were made to protect the crops from rust. The Christian festival initially followed much of the same processional route, but finished by returning to the basilica in Rome to celebrate mass. It has always been a time to pray for God’s protection of the crops, and for a good harvest to come, and in that it has changed little over the centuries. It was also a tradition that the three rogation days which follow Rogation Sunday to be fast days, and I wonder if this was partly to make a virtue out of necessity, since early summer is a time of promise of good things to come rather that of plenty. Historically it has been a lean time in rural communities that rely on what they can grow.
George Herbert, who depending on your point of view is either the patron saint of, or an extreme annoyance to rural clergy said that his rural congregation was addicted to the processions of rogation days. He wrote: ‘The Country Parson is a Lover of old Customs, if they be good, and harmless; and the rather, because Country people are much addicted to them, so that to favor them therein is to win their hearts, and to oppose them therein is to deject them. Particularly he loves Procession.’ Herbert goes on to say that the four aims of celebrating Rogation should be
To seek God’s blessing for the fields to bear fruit
To seek the preservation of justice in the boundaries of the parish
To walk in love with one another and reconcile differences
To practice mercy and generosity toward the poor from God’s provisions
It is probably from the second of these that the practice of beating the parish boundaries arose, and from the third a custom less observed nowadays of processing to the boundaries of deaneries and worshipping with the other deanery at the point of meeting.
More recently, The Clewer Initiative, which was set up in 2016 and is the Church of England’s national work to combat modern slavery, has suggested that that Rogation is also a time for us all to become more aware of modern slavery as it exists in the agricultural sector. We have recently heard through the news of people being brought to this country to do seasonal agricultural work ending up in debt to those who brought them here. Bath and Wells is taking part in the anti-slavery movement through the Hidden Voices Somerset project, which is setting up local hubs and providing awareness training aross the diocese. I should also add at this point that many farmers work well with migrant labour, treating and paying them fairly, and being reliant on and valuing the annual return of good workers.
The American theologian Vigan Guroian, in addition to writing widely on theological subjects, and being an acknowledged expert on the Eastern Orthodox church, has also written a book entitled Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening in which he says this:
‘I think if we all gardened more, all of the birds that fly in the air above and light in my garden below would be better off…When I plant in spring I also hope to taste of God in fruit of summer sun and sight of feathered friends. Gardening symbolizes our race’s primordial acceptance of a responsibility and role in rectifying the harm done to the creation through sin.’
Rogation days then remind us that we are a part of God’s work of redemption – in Romans 8 we read of how the whole of creation is in bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. They also ground us within our parish – it is worth remembering at all times that just as the apostles were commissioned to preach the gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth, they were to start where they were – in Jerusalem. For us the work begins right where we have been placed – in our communities where we live and work. The poet, farmer and environmentalist, Wendell Berry has said: “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.” We are Easter people but also people with a place, and that is where we need to bring Easter to first. A person who’s feast day was celebrated last Monday was Dame Julian of Norwich. She lived and wrote in the 14th and early 15th centuries, the times of the great plague, and was the first woman to have a book published in the English language. That book – The Revelations of Divine Love is still easily obtained now, but despite her worldwide fame, she spent nearly her whole life in a small cell attached to St Julian’s Church in Norwich. We don’t need to go anywhere except where God wants us to be.
These are also days to worship and pray. To thank God for the good place where he has placed us, and to pray for the people around us in our communities. To pray as well for those who work to provide the food that we can so easily pick up in the shops. The war in Ukraine has shown us just how important agriculture is to the feeding of the world, as it has become more difficult to obtain produce from that wonderfully fertile country.
The final task of this season though must surely be one of looking forward and preparing. Ascension Day is next Thursday as I have said, and that is also the first day of the season of Thy Kingdom Come when Christians in all denominations are encouraged to pray for the nine days until Pentecost for specific people to come to know God. And finally, it is all a time of preparation for that great festival of Pentecost when the birth of the church and the coming of the Holy Spirit to bring us power and enable us for the work that is ours to do will be remembered. There is a lot going on at this time of year.
 Inheriting Paradise by Vigen Guroian, Copyright © 1999 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Romans 8: 20