Bountiful Gardens and Petitionary Prayer
By Fr. Mark Perkins
The Fifth Sunday after Easter is known as Rogation Sunday, and the following three days leading up to Ascension Day are called “The Rogation Days.” Rogation comes from the Latin rogare, which means “to ask.” These are days of petition. In a tradition dating back at least as far as King Alfred’s day, parishioners led by the rector would “beat the bounds,” processing along the parish’s geographic border while praying for God’s blessing in the coming year.
In the Anglican tradition, Rogation has become closely associated with specific prayers for a bountiful growing season, as illustrated by the Collect appointed for the Rogation Days, which you can find on page 261 of the BCP:
“ALMIGHTY God, Lord of heaven and earth; We beseech thee to pour forth thy blessing upon this land, and to give us a fruitful season; that we, constantly receiving thy bounty, may evermore give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
This association makes sense, deep as we are in the season of spring. Fields have been sown and gardens planted. The work of tending the garden and caring for crops continues, but we begin to look forward to the harvest with anticipation and also some trepidation, because a successful harvest is not ultimately within our control.
As St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 3, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (v6-7, ESV). St. Paul, of course, is speaking metaphorically about spiritual growth but the metaphor faithfully describes literal gardening: we can plant seeds, we can water the garden, but the Creator of all things gives the growth. And so during these days we pray that God will do so.
This distinct Anglican emphasis fits naturally alongside the broader Western tradition of Rogation. The texts for this Sunday and the separate ones appointed for the Rogation Days that follow teach us about the nature and outcome of petitionary prayer, as we can see in our Sunday Gospel reading:
“Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.”
This passage and others like it are much abused by charlatans, who treat the Lord of Hosts as an all-powerful wish-giver. Jesus does not mean that we will get whatever we want so long as, instead of starting our wish list with “Dear Santa,” we end it with “in Jesus’ Name.” The Name of the Lord is not a magical formula that compels an Almighty Genie to comply with our wishes. In Scripture, the Name of the Lord encapsulates Who He Is. It is his glory and his renown and the boundary marker of his kingdom.
“From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my Name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my Name, and a pure offering: for my Name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 1:11).
The Name of the Lord identifies where the will of God is done, and we invoke it not as a formality appended to our wishes but rather to align our prayer with God’s will.
By contrast, to “take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Ex. 20:7) is to say and do in God’s name that which is not of God. Think of false prophets who claim to speak the word of Lord but instead speak lies — or of “name-it-and-claim-it” prosperity-gospel preachers who identify our Lord’s name with avarice and greed. “The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
This does not mean that we should hide our desires from God, nor should we feel guilty for wanting the good things of this life. Asking for those good things is precisely what we are doing when we pray for a bountiful growing season! St. Peter tells us to cast all our “care upon him; for he careth for you” — but he does so immediately after declaring, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6-7).
Invoking the Name of the Lord teaches us to subordinate what we think we need to what God provides for us, and to hand over our needs and desires to God, so that they may be brought into harmony with God’s will.
Note what the Gospel text for The Rogation Days on page 261 instructs to do, and note what we are promised in the end:
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened… If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”
Ask. Seek. Knock. What we will find is the Holy Spirit. What God will give us is himself.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Curate at All Saints Charlottesville, Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar, and a full-time history teacher.