What makes today special? Well, it’s the sixth Sunday of Easter, so we’re coming towards the end of the Easter season and heading towards Pentecost in just two weeks’ time. It’s also the Sunday before Ascension Day, which is next Thursday, when we remember Jesus ascending to heaven after his resurrection. But the sixth Sunday of Easter is also an agricultural festival that has long been honoured by the church: Rogation Sunday. And in recent times, the Church has rediscovered the significance of this festival – and not just for rural, farming communities. Rogation can be celebrated either today or on any of the three Rogation days which follow – this coming Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
But what is Rogation? Rogation comes from the Latin word rogare, to ask, and it’s essentially an opportunity in the Church’s year to ask for God’s blessing not only on our farms and on the harvest which lies ahead, but also on all those who produce and distribute food and nourishment in order to sustain us – and, thinking of our Food bank, we pray for God’s blessing on this particular work of outreach and all those we thereby seek to serve.
The Christian observance of Rogation was taken over from the Roman religion, where on the festival of Robigalia, an annual procession would seek divine favour to protect crops against mildew. The tradition grew up of using special intercessions which were said during processions around the particular parishes, with prayers for the blessing of the land. In my four churches in Oxfordshire, we revived the tradition of an annual Rogation procession (rotating around the four churches from year to year), and we said special Rogation prayers around keys points in the particular parish before concluding our Rogation Service in church.
The great seventeenth century poet George Herbert saw the Rogation procession as a means of asking for God’s blessing on the fruits of the field; of encouraging good community relations and of encouraging charitable giving to those in need. The scope of Rogation Sunday in some churches has been widened in recent years. It still contains at its heart a blessing on the work of our farms, but the scope of Rogation has also come to include the world of work; good stewardship of all the earth’s resources; the inter-relationship of the created order; and prayers for urban and rural communities alike.
Rogation takes place in the springtime, when there is a renewing of the earth. And it takes place during the season of Easter, the season of the Resurrection. After all, renewal and resurrection are underlying themes of the countryside and farming, and George Herbert reminds us, the Christian virtues associated with Rogation are hope and justice and charity – they speak of our human responsibility for what God has entrusted to us. We are indeed called to renew the face of the earth.
And that is where Rogation ties in well with our Gospel reading from John. It is the second part of a discourse by Jesus about love and fruitfulness which we find in John chapter 15, and the first part of it (which was last week’s Gospel reading) focused on the picture of Christ as the true vine. John uses the symbol of the vine in a similar fashion to the way that St. Paul uses the picture of the body of Christ – we are all parts of the same body and are connected to Christ and to one another in our very being. But whereas Paul’s picture emphasises the importance of our being inter-connected, the picture of the vine stresses the importance of expressing fruitfulness in the Christian life.
And this is carried forward into our Gospel reading for today, when Jesus says: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” And so Jesus shows us the way of serving others – of bearing fruit so that others may taste of the fruit – and of not keeping the juicy goodness to ourselves. If we do this, we will find that our prayer life – our Rogation – will reflect the intercession of Jesus Christ, and the desire of God the Father. Jesus says: “The Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name”. This is not always in the time-scale or in the way that we have in mind, but if we truly pray in the name of Jesus, God will hear our prayer. But what is the fruit ? The fruit is every demonstration of a living faith, which is rooted in self-giving love. And sacrificial love is rooted in Jesus Christ, who gave his life and his love for us all. Love is the key.
But Jesus also says in our Gospel reading: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In these words Jesus unites the call to love God which is found in Deuteronomy with the call to love one’s neighbour which is found in Leviticus. These two vocations are brought together uniquely in the person of Jesus, but they are then offered by him to us all.
So we cannot generate fruitfulness ourselves. We must abide in Jesus Christ, who is the source of fruitfulness, and we will then express a Christ-like fruitfulness which will nourish others. The words of Scripture feed us, and so we are called to feed others. The bread of life and the fruit of the vine nourish us in Holy Communion, and so nourished, we are sent forth from this service to minister to a hungry and thirsty world.
So on this Rogation Sunday, when we seek God’s blessing on the fruits of his creation, and on our stewardship of his world, we must do so not as detached observers, but as fruitful participants in God’s economy . And we must do so in love, because without love, nature withers.
And the outcome of this love, as expressed in verse 11 of our Gospel reading is that “your joy may be complete.” This means that Jesus looks to rejoice in us, and to delight in the fruit that we bear. This is an abundant and creative love which generates a joy that grows and increases. The initiative lies with Jesus – he chooses us – but his love invites our response. And verse 12 distils the commandments of the Old Testament into one supreme commandment: that we should love one another as Jesus loves us.
I conclude with a prayer which is traditionally offered at the beginning of a parish Rogation procession:
God the Father, Lord of creation;
God the Son, through whom all things were made;
God the Holy Spirit, who renews the face of the earth;
Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, creating and saving God;
have mercy upon us.
Remember, Lord, your mercy and loving-kindness towards us.
Bless this good earth, and make it fruitful.
Bless our labour; and give us all things needful for our daily lives.
Bless our common life and our care for our neighbour.
Hear us, good Lord.
John 15 9-17