We used to call this Sunday Rogation Sunday, and the Prayer Book includes as “other commemorations - the Rogation Days, traditionally observed on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day.” The collect for these days in the old Prayer Book was this: Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth; We beseech thee to pour forth thy blessing upon this land, and to give us a fruitful season; that we, constantly receiving thy bounty, may evermore give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I remember gathering with my priest father and the congregation of St. George’s Indian River Hundred, rural Sussex County, Delaware, in the churchyard on Rogation Sunday to pray for the land and the crops. That tradition continued in Baltimore County, Maryland, and I invite you all to gather with me after this service around in the garden to ask God to “pour forth his blessing upon this land, and to give us a fruitful season.”
Our secular society reinvents responses to human needs. In 1970 John McConnell began to promote Earth Day, first in March then in April. McDonnell’s father was a Pentecostal Christian evangelist. Earth Day is observed by lots of people all over the world who never heard of the Rogation Days. Some history:
Back in 470 A.D. the Rhone river area in France suffered unusual storms, floods, earthquakes. Bishop Mamertus of Vienne called for three days of fasting and prayer that God would “pour forth his blessing upon this land, and give us a fruitful season.” He also called Christians to walk in processions through the fields and pray. And he recommended, and the Roman governor agreed, that the people not work those days. He picked the three days before Ascension Day in keeping with the custom of a time of prayer and fasting before the great feasts. These were called Rogation Days from the common Latin word rogo – to ask.
It might have been the human need, or the prayer time, or the three day holiday, or just the opportunity to get out in the spring and visit friends, but the popularity of the Rogation Days gradually spread through northern Europe. In England Rogation processions are found from the 1100’s and continued through the Reformation into our own time. Led by the clergy and church leaders people of the parish walked the boundaries of the parish carrying walking sticks to beat the ground at agreed landmarks. Then they all returned to drink and eat together - with the leftover food and drink being given to the poor.
As they walked property disputes were settled by common consent. And people were encouraged to use the Rogation days as a time to settle other interpersonal conflicts. The priest poet George Herbert (born 1593 died 1633) wrote of the four advantages of Rogation: First, God’s blessing for the fruits of the field; Second, Justice in the preservation of bounds; Third, Charity in loving walking and neighborly accompanying one another, reconciling differences at that time, and Fourth, Mercy in relieving the poor by liberal distribution of alms.
Rogation Days were also observed in America. In the British colonies from Maryland south the Church of England was the established church. In tobacco-growing Virginia and Maryland taxes and rents were paid in certificates of pounds of tobacco. From 1619 in Virginia and from 1692 in Maryland a head tax of about 30 pounds of tobacco each was collected on white males aged 16 and over and on all black slaves 13 and over. The tax was collected at harvest time by the sheriff and paid to the vestries for the support of the church and the poor. The average worker could make between 1000 and 1500 pounds of tobacco, so 30 pounds of tobacco church tax was about 2 to 3% of income. And the US national average charitable contribution in 2010 was between 2 and 3% of gross domestic product.
Many of the early settlers of northeast North Carolina were dissenters from the established church who came south to escape the church tax. Direct taxation of any kind was neither popular nor effective in the Carolina and Georgia colonies. It was not popular, but it was effective in Virginia and Maryland. Parishes were too large for Rogation processions so vestries appointed “processioners” to investigate property boundaries and determine the number of tobacco plants. But the custom of parishes offering spring prayers for the crops and eating a common meal continued.
The idea of beating the bounds morphed into punishing children at the landmarks so they would remember them. In the 1873 investigation of the Maryland Virginia boundary in the Chesapeake Boy an old waterman told of his father taking him one spring in childhood to the state boundary, showing him the landmarks and then beating him so he would remember them. That’s a far cry from asking God’s blessing on the crops, but it is an indication that the idea continued.
So far this is more or less interesting history, but what does it have to do with the gospel? The gospel is in today’s collect, which addresses God who has “prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding.” We pray that God will, “Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire.”
We read of the first man and woman in a garden. Their task was to tend and to enjoy the garden. St. John’s has a beautiful garden. Gardening is hard work, but it is rewarding work. Pulling weeds is redemptive - physical weeds in the yard, spiritual weeds in the heart. We enjoy the fruits of the earth. Unlike what is trucked in the local strawberries really have some taste and when they are ripe a wonderful sweetness.
The sweetness of the crops is a continuing sign of God’s sweet love for us in Jesus Christ. We are blessed with fertile soil, adequate water, good seed, and reasonable weather. In St. Matthew 5:45 we are reminded that God sends rain on the just and the unjust. In Isaiah 55:10-11 we learn that as the rain comes from heaven to give seed to the sower and bread to the eater so God’s word will accomplish his purpose and prosper. The Word of God has come to us in Jesus Christ. So let us give thanks for his death and resurrection, for his real and spiritual presence here in the bread and wine of the mass, and pray for his continued love and mercy on us and God’s whole creation.
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Prayers at the blessing of the land:
Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth: We humbly pray that your gracious providence may give and preserve to our use the harvests of the land and of the seas, and may prosper all who labor to gather them, that we, who are constantly receiving good things from your hand, may always give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.