Rogation is a very green’ season

This is a very special week for Christians in which our physical needs and our spiritual aspirations are contrasted and linked. Monday to Wednesday are Rogation days, traditionally days of fasting and abstinence, when we ask God's blessing on the crops and the work of our hands and minds.

This is a very special week for Christians in which our physical needs and our spiritual aspirations are contrasted and linked. Monday to Wednesday are Rogation days, traditionally days of fasting and abstinence, when we ask God's blessing on the crops and the work of our hands and minds. Rogation means simply “asking”, a basic form of prayer, recognising our dependence on God.

These days in only a few parishes will church processions go out into the fields to bless the crops. It is a simple ceremony which is long overdue a revival, with farmers and gardeners currently desperate for prolonged rain, and with the greater concern in the population at large for “green issues”, ecology, local sourcing of produce, and urgent attempts to offset the effects of global warming. As the church's popular Mothering Sunday touches family life, so should Rogationtide provide a Christian focus for “green” and work issues. (Note to C of E Liturgical Committee: please restore Rogation Sunday).

The Rogation Days are followed on Thursday by Ascension Day, when we celebrate Jesus' Ascension in to heaven and the completion of his ministry on earth. There is a close link. The Jesus who had prayed so movingly for his disciples on earth is, we believe, still praying for them in heaven. In him a little bit of our humanity is represented before God. He is our advocate, and it makes such a difference to know that now our feeble prayers are taken up into his, as we pray “through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

So this week is a good time to think a bit more about prayer, that most vital part of the Christian life. As someone said, prayer is the 'wheels' on which our Christian pilgrimage through life goes forward.

Jesus himself prayed regularly, we are told, and spoke often to his disciples about prayer. Some things he said come as a surprise to us. “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name”(John 16.24). That sounds like an unconditional offer, too good to be true. But if you examine it more carefully, it's the small print that matters…the words at the end “in my name”.

Prayer does not mean asking for what you want and getting it, just like magic. It means allying our will as closely as possible to the will of God, so that what we ask is “in his name”. Jesus was always concerned for his Father's will, and resisted every pressure (his temptation in the wilderness, his agony in Gethsemane) to turn him aside to something less.

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Jesus had a 'name' for God that no-one had dared to use before in quite the same way. It was the little Aramaic word “Abba”, an affectionate word for Father, almost 'daddy'. In the Old Testament the very name of God had been so awesome that the Jews never dared to use it, employing periphrasis instead. Yet here was Jesus calling God “Abba”, and teaching his followers to pray “Our Father…”.

Prayer is learning to share in Christ's own closeness to God. It is a real relationship, and, like all genuine relationships, it depends on mutual giving and receiving. Where there is no real communication between people, the relationship breaks down, as we know. Perhaps that is what is lacking in our prayers.

Archbishop Anthony Bloom, the great Orthodox spiritual leader, told of a lady who had almost given up praying. She found all her efforts quite useless. He advised her to go back to her room, tidy up, then sit down and take up her knitting, if she wanted to. “But whatever you do”, he added, “don't try to pray”. She did that and at first she was only aware of the ticking of the clock and the clicking of her needles. Then slowly she relaxed and grew silent. Only then did she become aware of a presence. And only then did prayer begin to mean anything.

Secretly we all want to be able to bend everyone and everything to our own purposes. We even, let's be honest, approach prayer with the thought of gain. Yet we can no more grasp God to ourselves than we can grasp the wind in our fist. Prayer always means a certain openness, sensitivity and surrender…” thy will be done”. The Psalmist's advice was “Be still, then, and know that I am God”.

Let Norwich's own Mother Julian, whom we commemorated last week, May 8 (the day of her “shewings” 1373), have the last word on prayer. “The way we often pray came into my mind and how, through lack of understanding we pester him with our petitions. Then I saw truly that it gives more praise to God if we pray in steadfast love, trusting in his goodness, clinging to him by grace, than if we ask everything our thoughts can name.

“All our petitions fall short of God and are too small to be worthy of him, and his goodness encompasses all that we can think to ask. The best prayer is to rest in the goodness of God, knowing that that goodness can reach right down to our lowest depths of need”.

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