Readings: Ezekiel 47:6-12; Mark 4:26-32
Yesterday, I was wondering if Stonebank Elementary School was trying to help my kids participate in the Rogation Days this year. First, my daughter came into the kitchen yesterday and announced that she had learned about plants and about pollen and that she was rather grossed out by the fact that there was probably pollen all over her right now. “What’s so gross about pollen?” I asked. But the only thing she would do is give me a very knowing look (something Claire’s seem to have mastered). And then it dawned on me: “Ah. You think it’s a little weird that plants reproduce in a way that is sort of like…sex?” “Yeah!” she said. “Well, I said, while it is sort of like how humans reproduce, it’s also pretty different.” “Hrmph,” she replied.
My son, on the other hand, is still oblivious to all such things. Instead, he begged me to allow him to plant potatoes, since he learned from Fr. Pryor (one of my colleagues who lives just down the hill from our family) that potatoes are one of the few food plants that the animals won’t eat because it contains solanine, which is a glycoalkaloid poison found in species of the nightshade family within the genus Solanum, such as the potato (Solanum tuberosum). Actually, I think Fr. Pryor limited his discussion to the fact that the plant was poisonous to most animals, and one of its natural defense mechanisms. So, this weekend, we were clearing out all the dead plants from all along the front of our house, both to make a place to plant some potatoes and also so that the mint could explode without being hindered by vines and dead leaves (I have a favorite gin drink in the summer that’s made with mint, so my motives were mixed, shall we say). But my favorite part of the whole endeavor was Isaac talking to the potatoes he was planting. “Hey little guys! This soil is really gonna love you! Bye, bye!”
I think in this scenario, my son has the more intuitive sense of our relationship to the earth. Oddly, the lessons appointed for today leave nature in the realm of analogy. The trees that grow in the river of life, as it were, are a picture of the final provision of God (which, of course, will almost certainly be material as well): “Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (Ezek 47:12). Similarly, Jesus uses the earth as a comparison with the kingdom of God: the scattering and growth of seeds, or the miraculous explosion of the tiny mustard seed into the greatest of all shrubs.
But the Rogation Days do not turn our eyes to the earth in analogy but truth. Just as our Anglican forbearers saw a much more straightforward relationship between our actions and our bodily healthy, so they also perceived a relationship between our actions and God’s direction of the natural world. This is from the collect begging for fair weather:
…although we for our iniquities have worthily deserved a plague of rain and waters, yet upon our true repentance thou wilt send us such weather, as that we may receive the fruits of the earth in due season; and learn both by thy punishment to amend our lives, and for thy clemency to give thee praise and glory.
But the relationship between us and God and the earth is even more complex than this. The Gospel lesson for the Rogation Days in the 1928 BCP (which oddly doesn’t appear anywhere in the three sets of lessons in the current BCP) is from Luke 11, that strange story about the rude and persistent friend, which Jesus turns and makes a wider analogy about prayer:
I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. …If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:8-10, 12-13)
The compilers of the 1928 BCP seem to have in mind the idea that not just general prayer, or even the Holy Spirit, come within God’s providential economy that presumes an essential part to be our prayer. They assume that the fruits of the earth, which sustain our lives and make our hearts glad, are also the result of that complex relationship between divine action and our prayer.
If you read the fiction of Lewis and Tolkein, you see that there is a much more complex relationship depicted there. In reading Lewis in particular, one is left with the impression that nature itself is part of the complex hierarchy of being. That, just as God created immaterial beings whose relationship with human creatures, as the Prayer Book reminds us every Michaelmas, have been “ordained and constituted in a wonderful order,” so too the trees and the woods fit also in this complex ecological economy. To put it differently, such a view assumes that God has constituted the world he created as a massively complex system of mediated actions: that grace is being shepherded to the creatures of his saving through the ministries of angels in their infinite array; though mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, dews and frosts, ice and snow, lightnings and clouds, sees and floods, beasts and cattle, the whales and all the move in the waters; and, of course, in the children of men. For it all his creatures praise Him, they are no less his servants, part of the vast array of the mighty ones who do his bidding.
So, as we ask for the intercession of the saints, for the protection and care of the holy angels, so we ask God to bid his servants upon whom we walk each day, the vast expanse of earth teaming with her billions of creatures, to be part of God’s mercy to us, the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.
John Keble ends his Rogation Poem with this cry to Savior to intercede on our behalf:
Teacher of teachers! Priest of priests! from Thee
The sweet strong prayer
Must rise, to free
First Levi, then all Israel, from the snare.
Thou art our Moses out of sight—
Speak for us, or we perish quite.
Preached at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, 7 May 2018