The Rogation Days


The following may be observed with the Collects, Psalms, and Lessons duly authorized by this Church:
. . .
The Rogation Days, traditionally observed on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day...
     bcp 18

The rogation days, like the Ember Days and other such occasions, are one of those observances that barely register in the attention of most people and parishes today. So called because the Gospels of both the preceding Sunday [Jn 16] and of the days themselves [Lk 11] enjoin us to ask (rogare) God for our necessities, they originated around 470 in Vienne, France, after a series of natural disasters, and perhaps at least in part by way of Christianizing earlier customs.

The Rogation Days are a time of penitence (originally with fasting), prayer for deliverance from evil and natural disaster, and blessing of crops or land. Celebrated with a procession, as were most important events in church and civic life, the Days (also called ‘Gang Days’ or ‘Cross Days’ because of these processions with crosses that were borne and/or erected in fields) often included a circumambulation of parish boundaries, the ‘beating of the bounds’ as it is still called (and still observed to some degree) in England today. Indeed, this was the only procession allowed in the reformed Church of England –

...they shall not from henceforth in any parish church at any time use any procession about the church or churchyard, or other place...

But yet for retaining of the perambulation of the circuits of parishes, they shall once in the year at the time accustomed, with the curate and substantial men of the parish, walk about their parishes, as they were accustomed, and at their return to the church, make their common prayers.

Provided, that the curate in their said common perambulations, used heretofore in the days of rogations, at certain convenient places shall admonish the people to give thanks to God, in the beholding of God’s benefits, for the increase and abundance of His fruits upon the face of the earth, with the saying of the 103rd Psalm, ‘Benedic anima mea’, &c. At which time also the same minister shall inculcate these or such sentences: ‘Cursed be he, which translateth the bounds and doles of his neighbour.’ Or such other order of prayers, as shall be hereafter appointed.

     Injunctions of 1559


Item, that in the Rogation days of procession they sing or say in English the two psalms beginning, Benedic anima mea, &c., with the litany and suffrages thereunto, with one homily of thanksgiving to God, already devised and divided into four parts, without addition of any superstitious ceremonies heretofore used.
     Archbishop Parker’s Advertisements of 1566

– where it was useful in reinforcing the identity of church and state, ecclesiastical and civic boundaries, maintaining order, and ‘admonishing’ the people, as well as for Christian fellowship. George Herbert, gentle soul, suggested the following reasons for maintaining the custom:

The Countrey Parson is a Lover of old Customes, if they be good, and harmlesse; and the rather, because Countrey people are much addicted to them, so that to favour them therein is to win their hearts, and to oppose them therin is to deject them. If there be any ill in the custome, that may be severed from the good, he pares the apple, and gives them the clean to feed on. Particularly, he loves Procession, and maintains it, because there are contained therein 4 manifest advantages. First, a blessing of God for the fruits of the field: Secondly, justice in the Preservation of bounds: Thirdly, Charity in loving walking, and neighbourly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if there be any: Fourthly, Mercy in releeving the poor by a liberall distribution and largesse, which at that time is, or ought to be used. Wherefore he exacts of all to bee present at the perambulation, and those that withdraw, and sever themselves from it, he mislikes, and reproves as uncharitable, and unneighbourly; and if they will not reforme, presents them. Nay, he is so farre from condemning such assemblies, that he rather procures them to be often, as knowing that absence breedes strangeness, but presence love. 
     The Countrey Parson, Chapter XXXV.
    ‘The Parson’s Condescending’

The 1979 prayer book and the Book of Occasional Services provide for the observance of Rogation Days with the Litany [bcp 148], Procession [bos] and Masses [bcp 207, 930], on the traditional days or at other times. bos notes that ‘Anciently, the observance consisted of an outdoor procession which culminated in a special celebration of the Eucharist. In more recent centuries, the procession has frequently taken place on a Sunday afternoon, apart from the Eucharist’, and that if the Procession does take place on a Sunday or Principal Feast, it should be observed separately from the Mass of the Day. The Benedicite and Pss 103–104 are suggested, additional lessons and prayers (including blessings of seed, stock, tools, and land) provided, and insertions to the Great Litany made (if Mass is celebrated without the Procession / Litany, the litany Form V of the Prayers of the People, with proper petitions inserted, is suggested). The focus of the Litany, of course, is very broad, but the proper petitions intensify the focus upon land and labor, which are clearly the focus of the Rogation Masses (titled ‘For fruitful seasons’, ‘For commerce and industry’, and ‘For stewardship of creation’). No fasting is enjoined, and (in keeping with the 1979 book’s predilection for dovetailing ritual units rather than letting each run its full course), the rubrics for the Litany require that, when it is sung immediately before Mass, the section called the ‘Supplication’ [bcp 154] – the part most in keeping with the oldest intent of the Rogation Days – not be used.

As a period of prayers for land and labor (and as ‘parish life events’), the Rogation Days have found renewed resonance with some modern Christians, and the procession has been adapted for use in an urban setting. Prayers for divine deliverance from calamity, however, are out of favor in the modern, rationalist world, where we mistake violence toward nature for mastery over it and like to believe we are immune from its raw power, the evidence notwithstanding. Perhaps we are afraid to ask for deliverance because we know that so many ‘natural’ disasters and even acts of ‘random’ violence are in fact rooted in, or at least exacerbated by, human lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, or pride, and we are even more afraid to repent of these sins. For this reason too it would behoove us to reclaim the Litany and Supplication offered at the Rogation Procession.