Rogation and Ascension
The week of the Sixth Sunday of Easter is busy with processions and outdoor activities. The week begins with prayers and celebrations that focus on stewardship of creation and culminates in the great (but lately much-neglected) Feast of the Ascension of our Lord into heaven on the fortieth day of the Paschal Feast.
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.
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.
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.
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;
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
As each element is received, an appropriate prayer is said:
At the presentation of money:
At the presentation of bread:
At the presentation of wine:
At the presentation of soil:
At the presentation of seeds:
At the presentation of crosses:
A Rogation Procession
Either immediately following the Eucharist, or at another convenient time, acolytes with cross, torches, banners, incense, holy water, and other symbols may lead the clergy and parishioners in procession. If no clergy are available, parishioners or families may organize their own procession, delegating or sharing the responsibilities for leading the prayers. During the procession, litanies, psalms, and hymns are sung. The litany may be the Great Litany from The Book of Common Prayer, or another litany. A Litany of the Saints is particularly appropriate on this occasion. The Rogation Days remind us that we are all part of creation and dependent upon both nature and our fellow humans for the necessities of life. Similarly, the Litany of the Saints reminds us that we are also part of something larger spiritually, the Communion of Saints, and dependent upon God's grace and our fellow saints, both living and departed, for spiritual support and sustenance.
The procession stops at various significant places to offer prayer. At each stop a blessed cross may be fixed to a landmark or set in a cultivated field as the Officiant says:
Set up your cross, O Lord, as an ensign to the people, and draw all nations to it.
A blessing appropriate to the place is then given. Incense may be offered and the place may be sprinkled with holy water. If a priest or bishop is not present, these prayers may be said by a layperson, adding the words in brackets. The people may also take blessed crosses and holy water to their homes and use these same prayers for the hallowing of gardens and farms that are not visited by the parish procession.
of Fields and Pastures
of the Parish (given at some central place or from the church door)
Reconciliation is an important part of the Rogation tradition and should not be overlooked. It is rooted in respect for appropriate boundaries, in the proper ordering of every element of creation, and, most of all, in the forgiveness which Jesus himself extended to those who crucified him. Reconciliation is not just about confession to God and absolution, nor is it merely a formal liturgical rite. Rather, it is about face-to-face reconciliation with our neighbor, and most especially our neighbor within the Church. Thus, one of the stopping points of the Rogation procession should be a place where reconciliation is the theme, with an appropriate reading from Scripture (e.g., 1 John 4:13-21) and a homily calling on everyone in the parish to seek to resolve outstanding differences before the day is over. Whenever possible, the priest and other members of the parish should make concrete efforts to bring together those who need to be reconciled. This prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi may be used:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
It is traditional for the Rogation services and processions to end with food. Ganging Beer was probably just the seasonal brew at the local pub, so for those who want to keep that part of the tradition, any good local brew would serve the purpose well. No one seems to have any idea what Rammalation Biscuits were, so invent your own. Hot Cross Buns would make a suitable substitute, if you are not feeling creative. In any case, unique foods are not required. Have a picnic or a pot luck supper in the church hall. Gladden the body with good food and drink, and the soul with the fruits of fellowship and reconciliation.
Then he led them out as far as Bethany.... While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. (Luke 24:50-51)
While Luke places the Ascension in Bethany, the tradition "on the ground" stops short of Bethany, on top of the Mount of Olives. A stone inside the domed chapel there has traces of the footprints of Jesus before he ascended. Although most modern Christians have long since foresworn the literal concept of a "three-storied universe," the notion of Ascension nevertheless directs us upwards, symbolically. After all, no matter where one locates heaven, the biblical account still records that the last time the disciples saw the Risen Lord, he was going up. So, for us, as well as for ancient Christians, this is the consummate "mountaintop experience" and, consequently, traditions associated with keeping this feast take us both out and up.
Regrettably, Ascension Day is becoming a forgotten, or at least a displaced feast. Some provinces of the Roman Catholic Church now transfer the observance to the following Sunday and we have observed that many Episcopal churches ignore it altogether. This seems to reflect and even support the growing tendency among many Christians to focus their liturgical involvement with the church on Sunday. To some extent, this is a consequence of the demanding schedules of modern life, but we are sure that there are other reasons, as well. Needless to say, reversing the tendency to a kind of practical sabbatarianism is an important part of what Full Homely Divinity is about. Homely divinity is daily divinity. And daily divinity welcomes the festal interruption to ordinary routines every day of the week, and not just on Sunday.
Renewing the active observance of this feast calls for a consideration of some of the liturgical customs that once distinguished it. Traditionally, the Paschal Candle was extinguished following the reading of the Gospel on Ascension Day. The gentle ascent and disappearance of the smoke from the smoldering wick was a poignant symbol of the departure of the Risen Lord from the earth. Now, it is customary in many places to keep the Candle burning until Pentecost and to omit entirely any special ceremony of extinguishing it. There are credible reasons for this change. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that so little attention is given to the extinguishing of this Candle which was lit with major ceremony at the beginning of the Paschal Vigil and holds a place of such prominence in the church building throughout the season.
Like the Church at large, we at FHD are not of one mind on this practice. However, apart from the rites of the Church set forth by authority (i.e., The Book of Common Prayer), it is never our intent to prescribe, only to suggest. The rubric regarding the Paschal Candle in the American Prayer Book (p. 287) says "It is customary that the Paschal Candle burn at all services from Easter Day through the Day of Pentecost." At the risk of being accused of nitpicking, we note that "customary" is a relative term. Customs vary over both time and space and we are simply pointing out that this is one that is not universal. It has changed before and it could change again. Some of us see value in the old custom, and like it enough to keep it alive.
There are other liturgical customs for this day which have also fallen by the way. One such custom was the lifting up of a statue or picture of Christ. In some places, this was quite elaborate, with ropes or chains rigged to elevate the image. In some places, it disappeared behind a veil or into a representation of clouds, while in others it went through a hole in the ceiling. After the image vanished, the congregation would be showered with rose petals and other flowers, symbolizing the gifts which the ascended Christ gives to his Church: When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people....that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.... (Ephesians 4:7,11)
In Germany, it was the custom for the priest to lift high a crucifix after the reading of the Ascension Gospel. This custom has much to recommend it. It makes visible the symbolic link between the Cross and the Ascension which is implicit in Jesus' words when he says, And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32) On the Cross, Jesus is glorified. When he ascends, he ascends to reign in glory. It could be a simple, yet effective, bit of liturgical drama to revive this custom. An extra acolyte, carrying a crucifix, could be added to the Gospel procession on Ascension Day. Or, if the parish owns a processional cross which has a figure of Christ on it, that should be carried at the head of the Gospel procession. It is important for this particular ceremony that the cross not be empty. While in many contexts an empty cross is an effective symbol, here the focus is on Christ himself, so a crucifix is needed. At the conclusion of the reading of the Gospel, instead of lifting the Gospel book and proclaiming "The Gospel of the Lord," the deacon or priest should exchange the book for the crucifix, and lift it high. It is still appropriate to say "The Gospel of the Lord," for the uplifted figure of Christ on the cross is indeed the Good News (Gospel) that we proclaim and celebrate. A processional crucifix would be especially dramatic as it would enable the Gospeller to lift the figure very high.
Ascension Day has always been a day for processions, following the example of Jesus who led the disciples out of Jerusalem and up the Mount of Olives. In the Middle Ages, these processions went out into the streets of the town, and everyone took part. In England a banner depicting a lion trampling the devil under his foot was often carried at the head of the procession, symbolizing the triumph of the ascended Christ over the evil one. In the course of the medieval processions in larger towns and cathedral cities, there were stops along the way to view pageants. These medieval pageants, enacted during processions on several of the greater feasts, were designed to teach the unlettered faithful about the feast and were the basis for the more elaborate cycles of mystery plays that became a centerpiece of the feast of Corpus Christi.
As with the Rogation processions, the liturgical processions of Ascension Day had their non-liturgical aspects. In time, the liturgical procession evolved into a holiday hike, with hills and mountaintops as their destination. This is the logical focus for a family observance of the feast. After attending the Ascension Day Eucharist, or on the weekend following, take a picnic lunch or supper and hike to the top of the highest hill or mountain around. If hiking is not possible for some reason, drive, but go up to the heights. At the beginning of the trip, read Luke 24:50-52 and say this prayer:
Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On the way, sing or say Psalm 47, which proclaims: God is gone up with a merry noise. If you have a portable tape or CD player, play a recording of a choir singing the psalm or the anthems based on it by Orlando Gibbons, William Croft, or Gerald Finzi, or other Ascension Day music. When you reach the top of the hill, read the story of the Ascension in Acts 1:6-11 and say this prayer:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Take time to notice the clouds, if there are any that day (and hope that they are not pouring rain!) There is an old tradition that the clouds on Ascension Day take the form of lambs, in honor of the Lamb of God. See what shapes you can find among the clouds. You could also make your own clouds with incense or if you light a fire to cook on.
Every feast has its food traditions and Ascension Day is no exception. Some of them could be incorporated into your picnic lunch or supper. In keeping with the day's theme of upward flight, it is traditional to eat fowl: pigeon, partridge, pheasant, and even crow have been known to make it into the menu. Unless you are a hunter, Cornish game hen or duck from the market will be more readily available, and definitely more palatable than crow. German chefs make pastries in the shape of birds, a good alternative for vegetarians. As Christ is the first fruits of the dead, the blessing and eating of first fruits of the earth is a custom in warmer climates. Northerners will have to improvise, but will have no trouble finding many possibilities in well stocked modern produce markets. Italians take beans and grapes to church to be blessed, these being foods that their tradition says are eaten by the people released from Limbo when Christ ascended. The grape leaf is one of the first to sprout in the spring, so Armenians make Dolmas, stuffed grape leaves, to eat on Ascension Day. For dessert, even though they are not traditional, how about cloud-like puffs of white meringues, or a pie topped with meringue?
A unique English Ascension Day custom is found in Derbyshire. The custom is known as well-dressing and it involves decorating certain local wells with elaborate mosaic pictures, created with flower petals and other natural materials pressed into clay. Traditionally, the pictures were of a religious nature, though the modern observance of the custom has branched out into non-religious themes, as well. The custom cannot be said to have any thematic link with the feast itself. Indeed, it may be older than Christianity in Britain, but it has been observed on Ascension Day at least from the Middle Ages. The connection may have to do with a severe drought, during which certain wells continued to flow. Grateful people from the district came together on Ascension Day to give thanks for the thirst-quenching waters, and thus an ancient custom took on a Christian association, and became a part of the annual observance of the feast. Chambers' Book of Days gives an elaborate description of the festivities surrounding well-dressing at Tissington in 1864. More photos of modern dressed wells and a description of the process of dressing them today in Derbyshire may be found here.
The nine days from Ascension Day to the Eve of Pentecost are the original novena--nine days of prayer. Before he ascended, Jesus ordered the disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. After his Ascension, they returned to the upper room in Jerusalem where they devoted themselves to prayer. These last days of the Great Fifty Days of Easter can be a time for us to prepare for the celebration of Pentecost. As we anticipate the coming of the Holy Spirit, this can be a time to pray for renewal in the Spirit and a time to reflect on the gifts which the Spirit bestows on the Church. The prayer for the newly baptized, p. 308, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the traditional prayer for the seven gifts of the Spirit, based on the prophecy of Isaiah 11:2-3. This prayer could be the basis for daily reflection on the gifts of the Spirit in the days between the Ascension and Pentecost and the following adaptation of it could be used daily as a simplified novena.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon us the forgiveness of sin, and have raised us to the new life of grace in your Son Jesus Christ. Sustain us, O Lord, in the gifts of your Spirit: an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.
Or, here is a fuller novena, based on the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit. It may be used at the conclusion of the Daily Office or as a separate act of devotion.
Come, great Paraclete, Father of the poor, Comforter of the blest, fulfill the promise of our Savior who would not leave us as orphans. Enter our minds and hearts as you descended on the day of Pentecost upon the Mother of Jesus and upon his Apostles. Grant that every member of the Church may have a part in those gifts which were bestowed that day. O Holy Spirit, giver of every good and perfect gift, may the Father's will be done in us and through us, and may you, O mighty Spirit, equal to the Father and the Son in Being and majesty, be praised and glorifed for ever and ever. Amen.
Here may be added any of the following prayers: Our Father, Hail Mary, Trisagion, Kyrie eleison, Gloria Patri, concluding with the prayer appropriate to the day of the novena.
Second Day - Wisdom
Third Day - Understanding
Fourth Day - Counsel
Fifth Day - Fortitude
Sixth Day - Knowledge
Seventh Day - Piety
Eighth Day - Holy Awe [Fear]