Our Church Kalendar for this week designates Monday through Wednesday as Rogation Days, from the Latin rogare, to entreat. It originated as a pagan festival of procession through newly planted fields, with prayer that the eventual harvest not be spoiled by crop disease. After Christianization, when the festival was adopted in rural England, it became a procession around the perimeter of the local parish, blessing the fields and checking boundary markers with the neighboring parish. The procession was called “beating the bounds.” As the rector walked together with the local squire and other parishioners they also checked for within-parish boundary issues as they greeted people they encountered—for example, encroachments on tillable field plots or on right of way between adjoining fields. Disputes over these matters could be settled informally without having to go to the squire’s court. The rogation processions showed that the Church was concerned not just with what was happening inside the walls of its worship building, but with the activity of everyday life in the whole geographic parish, including the mundane conduct of the central aspects of rural economic life—right relationships in tending and harvesting the fields.
Our parish does not have geographic boundaries in the same way as in England, and we are located in a city rather than in countryside. So, we can’t bless the fields, thump parish boundary stones with our walking sticks, and resolve local disputes. Yet, we too are concerned not only for what happens inside the walls of our church building but also what happens in its immediate area. If you draw a circle around Ascension and St. Agnes with a radius of just a half-mile, think of all that is included in that space. There are lobbying firms on K Street, pastry shops, embassies, think tanks, schools, grocery stores, hotels, and the city’s conference center. There are expensive apartment buildings and publicly assisted living units. There are people who are economists and people who are homeless, entrepreneurs and janitors, physicians and lawyers and schoolteachers. People from all the world’s races, speaking numerous languages. People with differing strengths and differing primary thirsts: for success, for food and shelter, for profit, for safety, for knowledge, for dignity, for meaning, for community, for God. It’s a cross section of America—at least, of urban America. People who are mutually interdependent, some without realizing this, joined in right relationships and wrong relationships. How do we as a parish engage this?
In our current situations of isolation that exploration has to be an exercise of imagination, not of physical presence—a virtual rogation procession. But we have been given time now for such reflection. As things begin to open up and we return physically to the church community we love and have missed so much, we can develop new awareness of our church’s surround--the parish in a geographic sense. It is a particular place to which we have been drawn by God. We can envision new ways of connecting with our neighbors beyond the building’s walls, witnessing to God’s love and God’s concerns for justice. This presents both challenge and opportunity for the future. Let us engage these, by God’s help, with hope. But, for now, virtual rogation and the beginnings of discernment.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington