Easter, Ascension, Pentecost
This Thursday is Ascension Day. Ascension Day marks the end of the forty day season of Easter and begins the ten day season of Ascension, which looks forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Pentecost means “fiftieth day.” The forty days of Easter plus the ten days Ascension equal the fifty days after Easter that is Pentecost.
Rogation Sunday, the Rogation Days and agriculture.
Today is “Rogation Sunday” and the next three days are “rogation days.” The word rogation comes from a Latin word that means “to ask.” Rogation days are days of asking or prayer. Historically, the focus of prayer was for a successful harvest. In the Old Testament, Pentecost was the celebration of the Barley harvest. One rogation tradition was to pray the litany in procession around the boundaries of the city with intention for a good harvest.
For most of human history, faith in God was inseparable from agriculture. The very word agriculture refers in origin to the religious culture that is centered on the cycles of planting and harvesting. The industrial revolution has separated most of us from the land and its cycles—and we are impoverished by this separation. By this, I do not mean to express naïve nostalgia for a bygone era. Rather, I mean to highlight a simple truth. If God created a world in which cycles of planting and harvesting are the foundation for the movement of time and his own self-revelation, then moving away from those cycles necessarily moves us away from God.
One thing we lose when we move away from the land is a natural sense of the creation as a gift, and a natural sense of our dependency upon the giver of the gift. Before modern methods of irrigation and pest control, prayers for rain and protection of the crops from blight were prayers for the ability to eat. Drought and famine were catastrophic and life-threatening, as they still are in many parts of the world. Now, in the developed world, drought means we buy our food somewhere else.
Our modern outlook views this freedom from dependency upon God through nature as a good thing. Faith understands that there are two edges to the sword. The technology that frees us from living hand to mouth also gives us a sense of freedom from having to depend upon God. We don’t feel we have to trust God because we have science, technology, insurance, savings and modern medicine. Now, all of these things can be viewed as gifts to be received with thanksgiving and used faithfully. But these things can also become idols that we trust and depend upon instead of God.
Agricultural life in Christ and the bearing of fruit
The cycles of nature provide a central analogy for life in Christ. The life we have “in Christ” is planted within us and grows according to the same principles of nature we observe in the field. During Easter, we proclaim, “Christ is risen from the dead and become the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Corinthians 15:20). On Easter Day, when the body of Jesus came forth from the tomb, he was first of many dead to be harvested or raised to new life. Pentecost is the completion of that harvest. When the Holy Spirit descends upon the whole body of believers, the whole body is raised up to new life in Christ.
The faith and prayer of Jesus—his complete trust in God—is the foundation for the resurrection. Jesus prayed in the garden, “If thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). At the climactic moment on the cross, Jesus surrendered to God: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). It is this perfect faith and trust that leads to resurrection and the new creation—for Christ and for us “in Christ” As we learn to trust God day by day for our “daily bread,” we are raised from “the death of sin unto the life of righteousness;” the life within us is nourished and grows and “the fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) are produced in our lives.
Conversely, when we do not trust God; when we neglect prayer and abandon the attitude of faith, we come to depend upon ourselves and our own wisdom and technology. We become like planted fields that our not watered; we do not produce fruit. As Jesus said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:5, emphasis added).
Prayer and Work
One thing that pulls us away from prayer is the idol of busy-ness. We value work and industry and prayer can feel as though we are just sitting there getting nothing done. When questioned about what is going on our lives, we frequently answer that we are “busy.” We do not examine this word critically enough. Busy with what? Towards what end? A farmer can be busy with work that will produce a crop. A chicken with its head cut off is busy also, but the labor is not fruitful. A foundation of prayer is the distinction between the two.
Prayer does not stand in opposition to work. Our Lord worked very hard, but prayed constantly and intensely. St. Paul, who counsels us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) also boasted that he “labored more abundantly” than all of the other apostles (1 Corinthians 15:10). Our prayer book is built upon Benedictine spirituality that teaches that prayer is work and work is prayer. The monastic hours of prayer created a daily cycle of prayer leading to work and returning to prayer. Our daily offices have this pattern. Morning Prayer leads to daily work, which returns to Evening Prayer.
Through prayer we remember who God is and who we are in relationship to him. We remember the value of other people as bearers of God’s image. We remember that our vocation is to do good work to the glory of God—and never merely to make money or accomplish some result. Through prayer we receive grace, wisdom, inspiration and direction; through prayer, we learn to listen to God; our actions come to be rooted in Christ. Prayer makes us farmers who are planting, nourishing and harvesting good. Without prayer, we are more like dying chickens.
The Rogation Sunday lessons combine the themes of prayer and work. Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive that your joy may be full.” St. James says, “Be ye doers of the world and not hearers only.” The connection should be obvious. For what should we pray? We should pray for the grace, wisdom and direction to do the will of God. When we are led by grace to do God’s will, our joy is, indeed, full and we are, indeed, blessed in our work.
Busy-ness vs. the life of prayer in Christ
Without prayer, life is too busy. There are too many things to do and not enough time; there are too many thoughts and distractions roaming through our minds; there are too many problems and the challenges are too big. Through prayer we learn that God has given us just the right amount of time to do exactly the things he is calling us to do. Prayer gives us the wisdom to sort out what is fruitful from what is fruitless and act accordingly.
This is the pattern of the liturgy. We come to the altar to offer ourselves our souls and our bodies to God through Christ. We offer our confessions, intercessions, doubts and uncertainty. We offer to God the big, confusing picture. God gives us back forgiveness, healing, wisdom, strength, guidance and direction. He gives us back our particular vocation to do the particular good works that he has prepared for each of us to walk in. We bring to God our disorder and chaos; from this God brings forth the order and beauty of his new creation in our lives.
Rogation Sunday challenges us to reconsider the place of prayer in our lives. Human ingenuity may help us with efficiency and productivity; but a good harvest is still the product of prayerful dependence upon God, the giver of all good gifts. As Jesus said, “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.”