Saturday, May 28, 2011

Separation Anxiety: Rogationtide and the Church's Mission

The Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day form what is traditionally known as Rogationtide. This ancient observance (in the Northern Hemisphere) connects the annual cycle of planting-growing-harvesting to the liturgical year. Special Rogation prayers, fasts, processions, and outdoor celebrations of the Holy Eucharist all were once a commonplace in our agrarian past.

A few places continue a limited observance (the making and blessing of Rogation Crosses, some form of “Beating the Bounds,” and perhaps the blessing of gardens or fields), but mostly it has lapsed in our hip, trendy, urban era. The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), from which we must now draw our Sunday scripture lessons, no longer makes any real provision for Rogationtide, and most Church authorities seems to ignore it.

All of this is both a bit ironic and yet fairly predictable.

It is ironic because we hear so many in the contemporary Church speak about the need for a spiritual recovery of environmental consciousness and stewardship, but when there are ways in our own tradition and practice to raise this awareness in our communal life, we ignore them.

This is the predictable part, because so much of the environmental movement in Western Christianity springs from secular sources rather than from an authentically Christian, Trinitarian source. Because of these unacknowledged roots, the tendency is for most of our discourse about the environment to go to various pharisaical projects (“What is my carbon footprint?” “What is yours?” “How do I juggle the numbers so I can appear to be much more environmentally pure while still living pretty much as I have?” and the like).

This misbegotten origin is also revealed in the patchy, often shallow manner we respond to today’s challenges in and through the Institutional Church. Every few years a new set of buzzwords, a new collection of gurus, another round of seminars and books and techniques is unleashed on the Church—each time promising to do what the previous iteration failed to achieve: make us relevant and persuasive in an ever-more secularizing culture. Gradually, the Church comes to appear more like a failing business concern, anxious to sell its product with slick new packaging or a viral ad campaign. The radical nature of authentic Christianity is nowhere to be found in all of this.

The story of our creation in Genesis makes clear that we were made a part of the whole, not apart from it. Created in the Image of God the Holy Trinity, we were meant for dynamic communion with God, the neighbor, and the Creation. This integrated, holistic sense of our being is buried deep within us. Sin, in all its forms, divides and compartmentalizes us. We lose the wholeness in which we were created. The ultimate sign of that loss is Death. Dying places the ultimate “division” into our world, and motivates humans through fear and anxiety to do things that further our alienation from God, each other, and the Creation. This alienation normally takes the form of a continual search for control—at any cost.

In a pre-technological world one of the ways humans tried to have this control was through magic. (Interestingly, this response is seeing a new lease on life in our complex world—see the rise of such groups as Wiccans, &c.) By worshiping certain supposed powers and engaging in various rituals it was thought we could be free from our fears and anxieties for a time. The scriptures record many stories of such activities, from orgies on the hilltops meant to ensure better crops by “communing with Baal,” to sacrificing children as a way of appeasing the fiery god Moloch. Indeed, idolatry in all its forms is really just a massive attempt to overcome the effects of sin and death by furiously seizing whatever means of control seems to be at hand. It only furthers our separation from God, however.

We can think we have “evolved” pretty far from this—but we delude ourselves. A technological society has fashioned new, “demythologized” gods and worships at other, “scientific” (but often more blood-soaked) altars. Alienation from the Trinity continues to drive us to horrific things: drug addiction, consumerist materialism, religious and atheistic extremism, industrialized warfare, sexual delusion, exploitation of weak nations and peoples by strong ones… the list goes on and on. We tend to think of these things as inevitable results of modernity, or as something we can fix through education, but are they? Their origin, the scriptures show us, is much deeper. It comes from a decision we continue to make to live apart from the revealed will of God and the order manifest in his Creation. That separation leads to an anxiety we attempt to “fix” by seeking more and more autonomy, more and more control: in other words, to attempt to be God rather than to live in communion with God.

From genetically-modified foods to genetically-modified relationships and societies, we are living in the Second Great Wave of Eugenics. The first one, espoused by everyone from Henry Ford to Adolph Hitler, proved to be a horror. The second one promises to start out more subtly, but proceed along the same basic course. Forsaking God’s leading and turning away from the other book of scripture God gave us—the Creation—we will continue to delude ourselves into thinking that we are gods, autonomous and free to make up the rules as we go. Like an alcoholic on a binge, we will only learn when we “hit bottom,” whatever that means.

In the midst of this, the Church must struggle to proclaim the Gospel’s message that this “separation anxiety” cannot be overcome in any way save through the union with God, neighbor, and Creation available in Jesus Christ our Lord. Not only must our official documents say this, but our worship itself must show it forth—and it does, if we let it.

At each Eucharist, the Church offers to God the whole of Creation now redeemed in Christ. Through the power of the Holy Spirit Christ has given to his Church, the liturgy reveals the intrinsic holiness of matter by recalling the act of Creation, the Incarnation of God in Christ, and the final restoration of all things through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and finally at the Parousia. As emblems of this once-and-future unity available to the faithful now in and through the Church, we receive the Holy Mysteries of Christ. The Eucharist is a deeply unifying, revelatory offering of a priestly people.

Rogationtide makes this yet more explicit. We, who cannot live without nourishment both physical and spiritual, annually pray for fruitful seasons, justice in commerce and industry, and for good stewardship of the creation. Crosses are blessed and distributed for the faithful to place in their gardens, farms, and yards to remind us that the mystery of faith connects the heavens and earth, the physical and the spiritual, the life of the Trinity with the life of the Creation.

Perhaps, when this age of willful forgetting has ended, we will remember once more that our faith alone has the capacity to inspire and save—to overcome our “separation anxiety.” Secular movements come and go; ideologies flourish and die; trends peak and sink out of sight: only the Gospel lasts until the End, for only the Gospel recalls us to our true selves in the truth about God.

The following prayers are to be offered during Rogation Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at Morning and Evening Prayer. When parishioners place their Rogation cross for this year’s growing season, one or more of these prayers, together with the Our Father, is suitable.

I. For fruitful seasons

Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth: We humbly pray that your gracious providence may give and preserve to our use the harvests of the land and of the seas, and may prosper all who labor to gather them, that we, who are constantly receiving good things from your hand, may always give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II. For commerce and industry

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

III. For stewardship of creation

O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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