Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, a High Holy Day. After Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to his disciples for 40 days – eating with them, continuing to teach them, being with them and reassuring them – and then he was brought up to Heaven, before the disciples’ very eyes, in the midst of a cloud. This event of Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven is marked 40 days after Easter, always on a Thursday. But it is preceded by a more “down-to-earth” celebration that, back in the olden days, took place on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before the Feast of the Ascension. These are called Rogation Days. An old English tradition, Rogation Days are now mostly un-heard-of.
Primarily, it was an agriculturally-based festival, in which prayers for the newly planted or just-sprouting-from-the-ground crops would be offered, and the people would ask God’s blessings on the new crop for a bountiful harvest. In addition, the people of the Church, including the clergy, would process around the boundaries of the villages and farmland – the boundaries of the parish – and do something called “Beating the Bounds.” As the people walked around the perimeter of their parish village and the surrounding fields, they reminded themselves where the boundaries of their community lie, and they prayed for the fruitfulness of all the effort that goes into making a village thrive, making a harvest abundant, getting people fed. They asked for God’s help for a fruitful harvest because they were aware, deeply aware, that they were totally dependent on God and that despite all their best effort, everything they did and required for survival needed God’s sustaining help in order to be.
Before the Feast of the Ascension, before the cloud and sky and heaven, there was a three-day religious observance about seeds and crops, about the earth, about the common ground upon which we dwell, the mundane places and things of our daily lives. Before the stained glass, silver candle holders, silk robes and Anglican Chant, there was slogging through the mud all over the village, noticing the seeds in the ground and the animals in the fields. For the God of the Ascension, the God of Heaven, the God who raised Jesus Christ to the Right Hand of the Father is also the God of the muddy field, the sprouting seeds and flowers, the cow who gives milk to drink and manure to fertilize, the bee who pollinates and provides wax for candles. This is the same God who came to earth to make creation new, to give new birth to and re-consecrate all of humanity, all of human life, all physical matter and flesh and dirt - earth, dust and ashes. If we really believe that God came to earth in human flesh to live a physical life, to make all of the matter – the stuff - of creation new, then Rogation Days and the feast of the Ascension are inextricably linked. The ascent to heaven (the vertical) follows the hallowing of that which is earthly (the horizontal). They intersect in God, in the baby in the animals’ feeding trough, in the shape of the cross of life.
There are many themes of Rogation Days that are worth highlighting, remembering and re-claiming. It was a time to be reminded that all that we have and all that we do is completely dependent on God. Furthermore, we are completely interdependent with one another in a community and dependent on the earth and all of Creation, from which comes the very food that we eat. There was nothing individualistic about Rogation Days. It was a community observance, and it was clear that the circle of relationship and of God’s care and blessing included the entire community – not just the Church building and those who frequented the inside of it. Every house and field and barn and pasture, large or small, fell within the circle of relationship, blessing and interdependence. The places lived in by good folk and notorious sinners, the hard workers and the layabouts, the prestigious wealthy and the lowly poor – all were acknowledged as being a part of the parish community, being inside of the boundary, being recipients of God’s care and blessing, being in real need of prayer and God’s sustaining help. In addition to the humans of the community, the animals and plants upon which the people depended for their very survival were prayed for and blessed, and the interdependence of God, humans, and all of creation was acknowledged. On Rogation Days, people were reminded that the “parish,” the boundaries of the community praying and in need of prayer, did not lie on the church property. The parish included the entire community, living together on a shared bit of earth, all that was great and lovely, lowly and messy. This is worth remembering today, especially for those of us who spend a lot of time around church buildings and with people that we consider to be fellow “parishioners.”
What would it be like to Beat the Bounds of our lives? Where are the places where we go about the daily tasks of living? What would it be like, as we go through the routines that make up our days, for us to ask God’s blessing, pray for God’s sustaining help, actually acknowledge that we are dependent on God in every one of the things that we do, that we actually need God? What would it be like to realize that no part of our lives is beyond the boundaries of God’s love and care? This is Beating the Bounds. The bounds of my life would include the baby’s changing table - where I deal with what sometimes smells like the most un-heavenly thing on a daily basis - right alongside the places where I pray, the places where it is easy for me to feel inspired and filled with a sense of God’s presence and blessing. The earthly and the divine, the sublime and the messy, the ugly and the beautiful and all that is in-between - all fall within the bounds.
And what are the “Bounds” of our parish? Who are the people with whom we are in relationship as we make our way through the mundane realities of each day? Who is your community? Is it people who live in your house? Is it the people in your neighborhood, your town or city? In today’s “global” society, it could be argued that our community – the boundaries of our village – include the whole world. The web of our interdependence is complicated and very, very wide. What are the boundaries of our parish, of those for whom we pray, those with whom we are called into loving relationship by God, whom we are called to serve in Christ’s name? Who falls within our circle of care? The boundaries of our parish most certainly are not limited to the boundaries of the Church property. Are they the boundaries of Hamden, from the slums on one end to the Polo Club on the other? Do the boundaries of our parish include the many towns and cities where our “parishioners” live and work? Do they include the state or Diocese of Connecticut? The country? The world? The earth, the newly sprouting seeds and animals and plants that will give us the food on our tables and the bread, wine and wax candles on our altar in the seasons to come? Whom, and what, shall we ask God to bless and nourish and care for?