The three weekdays before Ascension Thursday are known in Anglican calendars as Rogation Days. The Sunday before them is often known as Rogation Sunday. They take their name from the Latin verb, rogare, “to ask.” They are special days of intercession, particularly for spring plantings, and were traditionally marked by processions that “beat the bounds” of the parish while praying the Great Litany. (See An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church for a bit more information.)
Like some other traditional observances, the Rogation Days (or Rogationtide), did not fare well in the liturgical reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. They were seen as detracting from the strong focus on the unity of the “Great Fifty Days” of Easter. The fasting and penitence sometimes associated with them was seen at odds with Easter joy and their observance in the northern hemisphere’s late spring was not in sync with the agricultural cycle of all regions, particularly the southern hemisphere.
In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church directed national bishops conferences to choose the time of their observance (General Norms, 45-47). Catholics in the U.S. and most of the world simply dropped them. They fared better among Anglicans, but were still de-emphasized. In the Episcopal Church, the weekdays were made days of optional observance, and the Sunday no longer labeled as “commonly called, Rogation Sunday” as was in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
At Episcopal churches I’ve attended in Birmingham, it has only been observed through the selection of hymns. On Sunday at All Saints’ in Homewood we sang “O, Jesus, crowned with all renown” and “As those of old their first fruits brought.” Other hymns I recall being sung on the day are “We plow the fields and scatter, ” and “For the beauty of the earth.”
Edward White Benson’s “O Jesus, crowned with all renown” is the one hymn in the Hymnal 1982 placed in the section for Rogation Days. (Others are recommended in the index.) It is explicitly a hymn for planting. The hymn’s petitions all come in the second stanza
Lord, in their change, let frost and heat,Edward Benson White, “O Jesus, crowned with all renown,” The Hymnal 1982, 292.
and winds and dews be given;
all fostering power, all influence sweet,
breathe from the bounteous heaven.
Attemper fair with gentle air
the sunshine and the rain,
that kindly earth with timely birth
may yield her fruits again:
Aside from the fact that the meaning of the verb “attemper” is probably not evident to most worshipers, it’s a nice hymn. I believe Sunday was the first time I’ve sung it. Since it led off the service, and a clergyman new to the parish was preaching, I thought the sermon might make note of Rogationtide. It didn’t.
I asked in an online Episcopal discussion group if other churches observed the Rogation Days. Several reported they did, with hymns and an appropriate sermon on Sunday. Some reported traditional outdoor processions drawing on the resources in the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Occasional Services. One person in Indiana said the liturgy was Tuesday at 6:30 with incense and invited me to bring my tractor. More relevant to my own situation was a comment from a fellow Alabama resident: “Sorry to be a wuss, but you don’t beat the bounds this time of year in Alabama, 96 degrees and 85% humidity with a blazing sun.”
Indeed, given how late the Rogation Days are this year they are rather out of sync with the growing cycle in the Deep South. The farmers markets are full of local everything. The best peaches of the season are on sale now. Our plums are coming in, and our blueberries won’t be far behind. In New Zealand, optional Rogation Days are observed around the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (October 4). Which is not only in the southern hemisphere’s spring, but closer to the equinox than are the traditional ones.
Interestingly for those of us in warmer climes, I learned from another commenter that in the traditional Roman rite. the three days before Ascension are simply the Minor Rogation Days. The Major Rogation Day is April 25. According to the old 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia the Major Rogation on April 25 predates the observance of the feast of Mark the Evangelist on this day and appears to have been a response to the Roman pagan festival of Robigalia.
According to the Encyclopedia Romana, Robigo, the god of blight, red rust, or mildew was besought on this day not to cause the blight that he was capable of creating. Ovid reports that the priests prayed “Scaly Robigo, god of rust, spare Ceres’ grain, let silky blades quiver on the soul’s skin. Let growing crops be nournished by a friendly sky and stars until they ripen for the scythe.”
In essence, the traditional Rogation procession is a prayer walk, a practice enjoying some popularity today among charismatics and other Christians. As John Baldovin’s Urban Character of Christian Worship makes clear, processions were a fundamental worship practice for Christians in the fourth century and afterwards. It’s a point that wonderful teaching resources like Walking Where Jesus Walked and Tasting Heaven on Earth help me communicate to students. Many resources for Rogation Days speak of praying for the community in general, rather than simply agriculture. And certainly the Great Litany traditionally used in Anglican Rogation processions is a comprehensive prayer. One of my first introductions to urban Rogation processions came in studying the religious history of Washington, D.C. The Rev. Henry Hurd Bruel made them a hallmark of his ministry at St. Thomas Episcopal Church near DuPont Circle beginning in 1966. They demonstrated the church’s concern for the neighborhood.
Yesterday, Rogation Monday, I rode my bike around a Birmingham neighborhood I’m teaching a seminar on in the fall.
[May 2020 Update: You can see much of the research that seminar produced here: ]