Sunday 5 May 2013

Rogation prayers

Today is Rogation Sunday - ‘But what is this Rogation thing all about?’, I hear you ask.
The word ‘rogation’ comes from the Latin verb ‘rogare’, which means to ask. In the medieval church the 3 days before Ascension Day - that’s next Thursday this year - were called Rogation Days. They were kept as special days of prayer and fasting to ask for God’s blessing on the crops in the field – as so often, this was a case of the Church taking over – Christianising - an earlier Roman pagan festival, called Robigalia. The Gospel set in the old lectionaries for this Sunday included Christ’s words, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give to you”, so it was called Rogation Sunday.

All kinds of traditions grew up in different places in Western Europe about Rogation-tide, though I’m not aware of any particular Irish Rogation traditions. In many places entire congregations would march in procession around the fields to bless them. In some places this was combined with ‘beating the bounds’ - visiting all the landmarks on the boundaries of the parish, so that in the days before maps the young would come to know them, and they would continue to be remembered in immemorial tradition.

We don’t do that anymore, of course – though it would be rather fun, wouldn’t it!. But I do think it is important in our rural community to recognise our dependence on God’s blessing for our livelihoods and communities. At Harvest time we come together to give thanks for all he has blessed us with, and at Rogation we come together to pray that he will bless us in future – they are two sides of the same coin.

It’s been a long and difficult winter for many of us, hasn’t it?
After a bad summer last year, many farmers were feeding fodder early and were left with low stocks for the winter. And with Spring close to a month behind and late snows and frosts, there has been little grass growth. Animals have been on short rations, even starving. Farm organisations, Co-ops and Government have responded to the crisis by importing fodder from Britain – something quite unprecedented. Could we be starting to see the ill effects of climate change?

The Great Recession we have been living through since the housing bubble burst is a bit like a long and difficult winter too, it seems to me.

But we have turned the corner now – the grass is growing, the arable crops are starting to move forward, we are beginning to see calves and lambs and foals in the fields. Now, as the great on-rush of spring lifts our spirits, is a time to look forward not back, to ask God for the blessings we hope to receive in future, not dwell on past troubles.

Last Sunday I missed the large and joyful Confirmation party you had here in St Mary’s. I was sorry to miss it – but I was also part of large and joyful party at a long planned wedding in Co Clare. That lifted my spirits – but then they were raised to towering heights by an afternoon in the Burren with Marty.

I took a long walk on a green road that was new to me, up the Glen of Clab to the great circular sink-hole of Pol an Bhiain. Although the trees were barely budding, the Spring flowers were a sight to see. In sheltered grassland there were plenty of Spring Gentians with their blue eyes – I discovered they close again in the late afternoon – did you know that? Under the hazel and ash woodland canopy were sheets of golden saxifrage, carpets of primroses and violets. Up on the heights, I found cattle grazing, met a herd of donkeys and saw feral goats in the distance. And in Pol an Bhiain I found a badger’s set. Enough to make my heart sing, despite the blisters!

I hope your heart sang too this morning, as you heard Joel’s beautiful words (Joel 2:21-27)
“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! 
Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 
children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God…
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 
I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten…
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God.”

So in that hopeful mood, trusting in God’s faithfulness, let us pray on this Rogation Sunday for a successful harvest to come, for an end to painful unemployment and austerity so that our communities will flourish, and for a sustainable future for us and for all God’s creatures.

Let us also reflect upon how our prayer can and will work.
Some people believe that by prayer you can somehow get on the right side of God. That if you have been good enough to worship him, to pay him attention and flatter him with a request, then he will reward you by giving you whatever it is that you want. But to seek to manipulate God like that is a travesty of Christian prayer. Rather we should understand prayer as a kind of conversation with God, a dialogue if you like, that opens us up to be transformed by God’s truth and love.

Our prayer, if it is genuine and sincere, expresses our most heartfelt desires. But we must recognise that it expresses our will, which may or may not be closely aligned to God’s will. The object of prayer is not to align God’s will with our will, but instead to align our will with God’s will.

And always, alongside us in this conversation with God, is the hard material reality of the natural world which God has also created and loves as he loves us.

As we express in prayer our deepest hopes and fears we must also seek to understand the real consequences of our actions, in order to discern how to align our will with God’s.
·        God cannot grant us a successful harvest unless we work hard and apply our God-given skills and ingenuity to achieve it.
·        God cannot grant us flourishing communities unless we make sure the economy works with God rather than against him.
·        And God cannot grant us a sustainable future unless we restrain our greedy and acquisitive natures.