Creation and New Creation – Beth Christianson
Well, we are now coming up on the end of the Easter season. This Thursday will be AscensionDay, the 40th day after Easter. Ten days after that, the 50th day after Easter, is Pentecost Sunday. There has been a tradition in the church since the 5th century that the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension are Rogation Days. Over time, this Sunday has been attached to those Rogation Days, becoming known as Rogation Sunday.
The word rogation comes from the Latin rogare, which means “to ask.” The Rogation Days originated in Vienne, France (not to be confused with Vienna, Austria), in the year 470. At that time, a series of natural disasters had caused a great deal of suffering among the people. Archbishop Mamertus proclaimed a fast and ordered that special litanies and prayers be said as the population processed around their fields, asking God’s protection and blessing on the crops that were just beginning to sprout. The Latin word rogare means “to ask,” thus these were “rogation” processions. In an agricultural society closely connected with the soil and highly vulnerable to the uncertainties of nature, this was an idea that took root quickly, and the custom spread around Europe and over to Britain. The Gospel formerly appointed for this day was from John 16, where Jesus tells his disciples, “ask and ye shall receive.”
While technically they were days of fasting, the Rogation Days developed into a popular festival. In some parishes, the procession around the boundary took more than one day and the whole business became an occasion for several days of picnics and revels of all sorts, particularly among those who trooped along at the fringes of the religious aspects of the thing.
The route of the walk was around the boundaries of the parish, which was a civil as well as a religious unit. Thus, the processions were useful in teaching people, particularly the young, their parish boundaries. Known as “beating the bounds,” the processions customarily stopped at boundary marks and other significant landmarks of the parish, such as a venerable tree, or a great rock, or perhaps a pond. The priest would read the Gospel and perhaps affix a cross to the landmark. Then the boys of the parish would suffer some indignity intended to help them remember the spot. Boys were bumped about against rocks and trees, thrown into the water, held upside-down over fences, thrown into bramble patches, or beaten with willow wands-and then given a treat in compensation. In later times, the marchers beat the boundary marker with the willow wands, beating the bounds, rather than the boys.
The reminder of boundaries had another important impact on communal life. The poet Robert Frost, once asserted that “good fences make good neighbours.” Boundaries are very important in relationships. As members of parishes beat the bounds, they would often encounter obstructions and violations of boundaries. The annual beating of the bounds provided an opportunity to resolve boundary issues. It also led to the tradition of seeking reconciliation in personal relationships during Rogationtide.
The custom of placing crosses on boundary markers and in the fields seems to derive from the fact that the Rogation Days fall near the old feast day of the Invention (or Finding) of the Cross. Crouchmas (literally “Cross-mass”) was on May 3rd and it was the custom on that day to place crosses in fields and gardens as a way of blessing them and praying for them to be fruitful.
Much of modern society has lost its direct connection with the soil, but this psychological distance does not lessen the actual dependence of all people on the gifts of nature.
Furthermore, responsible stewardship of all of these gifts is increasingly being recognized as the concern of all people. Days of thanksgiving, harvest festivals, and the like are observed in many churches at the end of the growing season. The Rogation Days at the time of planting have become little more than a liturgical footnote in the church calendar, but in these times of growing ecological concern the Church would do well to revive them.
I want us to look at the two readings we had from the Apostle John this morning in the context of Rogation. Our reading from John’s Gospel comes from Jesus’ long discourse to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Jesus has been talking to his disciples about the contrast between how he has revealed himself to them, and how he is perceived by the world. The verses we heard this morning were in response to a question from Thaddeus: “Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” Who or what does the Jesus in John’s Gospel mean when he speaks of “the world?”
Think back to the beginning of John’s Gospel: Jesus was in the world, the world was made by him, but the world didn’t know him. What is the world here? It is the whole created order; but it is also the people who inhabit it, and who have rebelled against their Creator. Jesus has, however, come into the world, (the Incarnation), because God loved the world so much that he sent his son to rescue the world.
Confused? You might well be. But the confusion isn’t John’s fault. It comes from the way in which human wickedness has distorted everything. God’s proper answer to this is both that he rejects wickedness and remains totally opposed to it, and that he loves the world, and the people, that he made, despite that wickedness. Jesus’ coming into the world brings both of these divine answers onto the stage of human history. He comes as the light of the world so that people can have the light of life; but many still prefer the darkness.
Because of all this, Jesus in his last discourse says a lot about ‘the world’ as a place of danger and darkness, the place where the disciples will find themselves after Jesus has gone. They will know him, because they will love him and keep his word. ‘The world’ will not know him, because it will do neither of these things. It is important to notice here that there is no attempt to make the kind of compromise that many Christians settle for, bending over backwards to discover places where they and the world are not so far apart after all. That is often the right thing to do; but the fact remains that much of the world to this day does not love Jesus and does not keep his word. To pretend otherwise, with all the horrors of both ancient and modern times, would be madness.
The Rogation days are all about acknowledging the boundaries in our lives. “We are responsible for this patch of land and the people on it, but not that patch.” But “beating the bounds” does not mean erecting barriers. You acknowledge the limits of your sphere of influence, but you don’t say that there can be no cross-over. Rogation days are also about acknowledging the limitations of our control even within our sphere of influence. We may have responsibility for the land, but we must rely on God to send the rain and the sunlight in their proper proportions to make the crops grow. God feeds us; we do not feed ourselves. Recognizing our dependence on God is part of what separates the disciples who love Jesus from ‘the world’.
There is, then, a sharp distinction between the followers of Jesus and ‘the world’. Only when that is recognized can the next word in this passage be heard, which is another spectacular promise: “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Those who hold fast to Jesus will find that his peace comes to them as a gift; a peace of a kind that ‘the world’ can never give. This peace will assure them of his presence and support, gladdening them with the knowledge that the Jesus they know and love is indeed one with the father.
The other Scripture reading we had from the Apostle John today was that glorious description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation chapter 21. Here it is also helpful to think about the creation we live in now and the new creation John describes in Revelation in terms of boundaries, not barriers.
John says in Chapter 21 verses 22 and 23, “l saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” The New Jerusalem will not need a temple in it, because God’s glorious presence will permeate everything. The temple in John’s present Jerusalem is a signpost that points to a future truth about the presence of God with his people; in the New Jerusalem that future truth will be present, and so there won’t be any need for the signpost anymore.
But in verse 23 we discover that it isn’t only the temple that is no longer needed. Even the sun and the moon, the two great lights that played such an important part in the first creation, the creation we pray for on Rogation days, will become redundant. They are yet another pair of signposts to the ultimate truth, that God himself is the light of his people, shining and radiant. Slowly we rub our eyes, and discover that even the glorious world of Genesis 1 was the beginning of something, rather than an end in itself. It was itself a great signpost, pointing to the world that God always intended to make out of it.
This will come as news to many, but in fact it should be central to the worldview of the Christian. The whole of Christian theology is based on the goodness of creation, yet the goodness of creation consists partly in this, that it points beyond itself to the new creation. It isn’t the case that the new creation was an afterthought, a Plan B once the first creation has gone so badly wrong. Human sin has meant that God’s eventual design has had to be arrived at by a long, winding and often tear-stained and blood-spattered route, the most important tears and blood being those of God himself, in the person of the Lamb. But, as with the triumphant conclusion of Exodus, so with Revelation, the goal is achieved by the power of sheer mercy and grace, the mercy and grace through which creation is not abolished but fulfilled, not thrown away and replaced but renewed from top to bottom.
Our prayers for the renewal of our land point ahead to the future, when God will ultimately renew the whole of creation. When that time comes, John tells us, “nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Amen.