The ‘Rogation Days‘ are the days before Ascension Thursday, which is forty days after Easter Sunday in the Christian calendar. The days get their name from the Latin word ’rogare’ meaning ’to ask for’. For a long time these were ’petitions’ to the almighty which were chanted in processions around the church. In A.D. 511 the Council of Orleans declared that the three days before Ascension Day, commemorating Christ’s going up to heaven, should be holidays for prayer and fasting. The processions moved outside the church and circled the parish, pausing at the edge of fields where prayers were said petitioning for a good harvest of the particular crop growing there. These sojourns included a ’Gospel Oak’. A modern survival of these folk-customs is ’beating the bounds’, possibly originating in pagan Roman festivals, Terminalia and Ambarvalia. The statue of Terminus was not int he form of a man, but a wooden post or boundary stone, marking the end of one estate and the beginning of another. From this, we get the idea of the end of a bus or rail route as a terminus. Ambarvalia, held at the same time of year, involved processions around the fields, with participants carrying sticks with which they beat the ground in order to drive away the winter frosts. Any grower will tell you that a late frost is very dangerous to the prospect of a good crop, especially if it comes after a prolonged spell of warm weather.
At ’Rogationtide’, a procession forms up at the church with the priest in charge at the front followed by someone bearing the ceremonial cross. The choir follows, dressed in their gowns and surplices, and a crowd of parishioners, including schoolboys with their masters. Most of them carry willow wands, topped with wild flowers. They stop at well-known ’landmarks’ around the route following the parish boundary, perhaps a gate, a tree, a bridge or a road crossing, so that the company can gather round for prayers asking for seasonable weather and a successful harvest. At some of these points refreshments will be waiting. At the ’Gospel Oak’, or some other prominent landmark, the wand bearers used to set about beating the landmark, then transferred their wand-action to one of the boys, who was rolled in the grass or ’gently bumped’ against a tree, receiving compensation in silver for his ’suffering’.
Since accurate mapping is a comparatively recent development, this was a sensible way of marking boundaries between parishes, especially before the early twentieth century, when the parishes played a vital role in the administration of the Poor Law and other local ’secular’services. In England and Wales, the Parish Council is still the basic unit of local government. If there was a dispute between parishes as to where the exact boundaries lay, somebody could be found who would remember a particular landmark from having received a beating there. In the late twentieth century the custom revived somewhat despite the national government taking over welfare services, and especially in urban areas where the boundaries might pass beside, or even through, a number of public houses, breweries and other places of interest forming ’recent’ additions to the townscape!
At St Clement Danes in London, the procession of clergy and choir follows the beadle, an officer from medieval times, featured in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, who was responsible for ratepayers’ meetings which were held in the ’vestry’ of the Church. The Beadle was also responsible for the relief and discipline of the Poor in the parish, especially the children in church. For this purpose, he carried a stick called a mace, and wore a blue uniform cloak. At the St Clement Danes procession, the choirboys follow his now ceremonial mace, themselves carrying willow wands topped with ribbons or flowers. With these, they beat the boundary stones, although the southern boundary lies along the bed of the Thames, for which the procession takes to boats.
Ascension Day, on the Thursday, is the day on which we think about Jesus being ’taken up’ to heaven from Bethany, as Luke describes in both his gospel (chapter 24) and in The Acts of the Apostles(chapter 1, vv 9-11). Having witnessed this, he tells us, they spent all their days in the Temple, worshipping and waiting for the gift of the Spirit to come to them before starting their ministry. In Acts, he tells us that, as they watched him, ’a cloud hid him from their sight’. They still had their eyes fixed on the sky when two ’men in white’ appeared beside them and asked them why, as practical Galilean fishermen and farmers, they were stood there ’star-gazing’. So, in addition to praying, they set about other practical preparations for ministry, together with the women and the family of Jesus. Already a hundred strong, the believers meet together and a successor to Judas is chosen. This was an important appointment, as Judas had been the group’s Treasurer. After that, Luke moves on quickly to the dramatic events of Pentecost. So, even during this quiet period of prayer and refection at Ascentiontide, like the disciples, we cannot afford to be ’so heavenly-minded’ that we are ’no earthly use’. Heaven may be a beautiful place, and we know that we too have a place there, but, for now, we need to focus on the here and now. We won’t need to strain our eyes, scanning the skies for signs of Jesus’ second coming, as with his first. It will be as clear and ’transparent’ an event as when he left. For this reason, Christianity has often been described as ’the most materialistic of all world religions’.