This coming Monday, April 25th, is the Major Rogation. In today’s world that statement might seem mysterious, inane, or perhaps even a misspelling, but in former times the day constituted one of the principal rites of spring, coming shortly after the feasts of Passover and Easter. After the planting of the new season’s crops, April 25th was the day that Christian communities across Europe held processions, offered prayers, and celebrated in the hope of a bountiful harvest to come later in the year.
As with many medieval celebrations that have carried over into modern times, this event was a Christian adaptation of the ancient Roman practice known as Robigalia, a rite in which the people asked the god of agricultural disease, Robigus, for protection for their new crops. In the fifth century, the feast assumed its Christian rendition, first in France, and then across western Europe.
In some locations, the celebration was held on the Sunday closest to April 25th, which came to be known as Rogation Sunday. Gradually, three lesser celebrations came to be held on the three days preceding Ascension Thursday, forty days after Easter. Known as the Minor Rogations, they were the final rites of supplication in the calendar of Western Christendom.
In pagan times, particularly in Rome, great processions were held leading out of the city to a place in the country where a dog was sacrificed to propitiate Robigus. Today, many Catholics, Anglicans and Episcopalians continue to celebrate the Rogation feastday, but happily for our canine friends without the sacrificial element. In the Middle Ages, the practice steadily grew in popularity across Great Britain, where it still continues to be a part of the liturgical calendar in many areas, both for Catholics and Anglicans.
Overtones of the heritage of Rogation Days can be seen in the annual celebration of Earth Day that began on April 22, 1970, to the derision of some at that time who ridiculed the concept. Now that Earth Day has spread to be a global acknowledgement of the fragility of the environment, the ties to the medieval practices are more apparent. The concept of sustainability is one of the driving forces behind Earth Day, as it was each year with the Rogation Day seeking blessings on the crops, their own view of sustainability.
The word “Rogation” comes from the Latin, “rogare,” meaning “to ask.” In that vein, Earth Day, as does Rogation Day, asks all of us to conserve our resources, precisely as our medieval ancestors asked God’s blessings on their crops, and as the Romans had done centuries earlier before Robigus.
Asking for bountiful harvests and conserving the environment are two sides of the same coin. Whereas our ancestors did not have at hand the means of controlling agricultural pests and diseases, thus their turning to Robigus, we have made technological advances that afford greater harvests, but sadly we also have made great advances in promoting pollution.
When we litter along the roadsides, when we indiscriminately timber fields of trees without replanting, when we fail to contain runoff waters, and when we do not use the land wisely, we are contributing to agricultural blight that ultimately weakens our harvests.
The Rogation Days, and now their secular counterpart, Earth Day, remind us that the planet is delicate, and to achieve the bountiful, sustainable harvests we need to keep people and animals fed and healthy, we must conserve and preserve our agricultural productivity. The choice is clear, and the consequences of not caring for our habitat are dire indeed.
Happy Rogation Day and Happy Earth Day!