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A Time to Ask

An address by Fr John Slater

25 March 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

I wonder how many English parish churches still observe the ancient Rogationtide ceremonies at this time of the year - processions out into the fields to ask God’s blessing on the crops. Londoners are protected from the effects a bad harvest can have on a rural community even today. Of course, people in the countryside won’t starve; we import most of our food from countries where it is produced cheaply. Even so, many people depend economically on the harvest for their quality of life even if not for their survival. But would they pray for a good harvest? Do we believe in a God who gives or withholds his blessing according to the sincerity of our prayers?

This Fifth Sunday after Easter became known as Rogation Sunday because the Gospel for today begins with the words of Jesus, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you. This is the Sunday of Asking, and for centuries we have been asking God’s blessing on our crops. But the real origins of this Sunday of Asking have little to do with the fields or the harvest. Today is the Sunday immediately before the Feast of the Ascension which falls just forty days after Easter. The Letter to the Ephesians refers to the Lord’s ascension, quoting from Psalm 68:
He ascended into the heights
with captives in his train;
he gave gifts to men.

But in fact this is not an accurate quotation. The words of the psalm have been changed from, He received gifts from men to he gave gifts to men. Psalm 68 is a hymn of praise to God’s triumph in the conquest of Canaan and uses the language any other society might have used of a victorious king who leads captives in his train and receives tribute from the vanquished.

But the Letter to the Ephesians says that Jesus, in his victory, did not receive tribute but rather gave gifts to men - all the fruits of his victory over death. Jesus assures the disciples that though he goes away from them to the Father, he will send to them the Holy Spirit to comfort them. Rogationtide, this season of asking, is not really anything to do with fields or harvests. What we should be asking for is nothing less than God’s gift of himself through the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is typical of men and women that our imagination seldom reaches such heights and so we ask what comes first to mind - a full belly!

Jesus says, Ask, and my Father will send to you the Holy Spirit with all the gifts of the Spirit, all that is needful for the building up of our common life as a Christian community, as the mystical Body of Christ. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Church is Christ present in the world today as community. We whose material needs are met in a prosperous and free society are liberated to seek for spiritual growth without anxieties and food and drink and safety. It would be a very ugly thing in us who are so privileged if all we really want is even more of the world’s material goods without lifting our gaze, our hopes, our longings, our imagination, to higher things.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for the gift of forgiveness, a gift we know we cannot receive unless within our hearts there is truly the spirit of willing forgiveness of others. In the same way we pray for the gifts of the spirit, for spiritual growth as human beings and as a Christian community. But surely we must add that these are gifts we know we cannot receive unless our hearts are genuinely willing to give to others what they most truly need when it is in our power to meet that need.

Christian Aid Week has just finished - an annual reminder of the responsibility all Christians have to be generous to the poor. Perhaps those Rogationtide processions into the fields were not so much a primitive ritual to influence God but rather an acknowledgement that all good things come from God. Men and women who know their need of God are more likely to look generously on others whom they find to be in need. In our global economy we are becoming aware of how the way we live in one country can have profound effects on the economy and life style of other countries, especially poor ones dependent on the export of food a raw materials. Strangely, our spiritual growth is directly related to our sense of responsibility to others whom we shall never meet.
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