When Christianity was adopted by Rome, the traditional processions and association with weather and farming were retained, but now the Christian God was petitioned, and the Rogation Days were observed on the days just prior to the feast of the Ascension. In England, these Rogation processions were used not only to bless the fields within the parish and pray for good crops, but also to reconfirm the locations of parish boundaries, to prevent disputes in a time when maps were rare and knowledge of the boundaries depended largely on memory. These outdoor processions were known as “beating the bounds.” The congregation and choir would follow the parish priest around the borders of all the fields in the parish, singing the Litany of the Saints, psalms and hymns. There would be a pause in the procession as the priest would stop to sprinkle holy water on trees, large rocks, and other natural objects, as well as man-made posts which served as boundary markers. Boys of the parish were sometimes thrown into streams, bumped against stones, and dragged over walls and hedges, in order to impress upon their memories the locations of the boundaries. Many parishioners would carry long wooden sticks or wands, using them to beat the boundary markers, again presumably as an aid to memory. The Rogation activities had a penitential aspect, and those who participated were expected to fast before the event. At the head of the procession was a banner with a dragon on it, symbolizing Pontius Pilate, followed by a lion, representing Christ. This would be followed by images of various saints, with an emphasis on local ones. By the time of the Commonwealth, the processions had sometimes deteriorated into revelry and drunken brawls, rather like the rowdy behavior during the Nutting festivities on St. Philibert’s Day in August. The occasion became an opportunity for disgruntled peasants to abuse the clergy and town council by throwing things at them and at each other, and rivalry between neighboring parishes sometimes turned violent when there were competing processions reflecting boundary disputes. This gave the Puritans plenty of reasons to ban the observances, in addition to the association with prayer to the saints and other condemned Roman Catholic practices. However, the Rogationtide processions were partially revived when the monarchy was restored, and still take place in various parts of England, both urban and rural. For example, in Chudleigh, near Exeter, parishioners enthusiastically beat the bounds of their parish every seven years. Their route is around fifteen miles long and requires a volunteer to swim the river Teign, and well as including more modern obstacles involving crossing busy highways in awkward places. The seven-year gap between processions is probably wise.
While blessing all our various fields for planting is now impractical to do in person in most places owing to the wide geographical distribution of parishioners, we still use the Sunday before Ascension to thank God for his creation, and pray for good weather, safety from natural disasters, and abundant harvests. We often sing the children’s hymn “All things bright and beautiful” on that day, written by the poet Cecil Frances Alexander and published in London in 1848. It begins
All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens, Each little bird that sings, He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings.
He gave us eyes to see them And lips that we might tell How great is God Almighty, Who has made all things well.
Another favorite hymn for that day is “All creatures of our God and King,” number 400 in the 1982 hymnal. This is an adaptation of a canticle by Saint Francis, traditionally thought to have been written by him during the last year of his life, in 1225 or 1226. Francis’s “Canticle of brother sun and of all creatures” had fifteen verses, and became one of the earliest laude spirituale – Italian medieval popular religious songs, somewhat equivalent to early English carols. His canticle is often studied by linguists, because it was written at a transitional time when Latin was becoming Italian. The adaptation into a now well-known English hymn was not made until around 1900, by the Rev. William H. Draper of Yorkshire. The theme is of creation itself praising the Creator:
All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voices, let us sing: Bright burning sun with golden beams, Pale silver moon that gently gleams, O praise him! O praise him!
One of the Rogation collects in our Prayer Book comes to mind. It reads:
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.