This morning, as I write, we are in the “in-between” time of Ascension Day and Pentecost—the day that Jesus ascended into heaven and the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers and set their hearts on fire. Every year, at this time, I think about a most unusual experience I had when I was nineteen. It was odd. It was different. It was comical. And when I discovered what it was, it was profound. I have never forgotten it. Today, I find myself thinking about it again—this day before Pentecost. As I grow older and deeper in my faith this memory brings forth gratitude and today I am grateful.
It was Ascension Day in 1980 and I was in Oxford, England with the Pfeiffer College Choir. As we drove along through Oxford, the people of the parish church were deep in their observance of Rogation Day, an important ritual that includes gathering at the parish church, walking the entirety of the parish, and “beating the bounds” with willow wands—the boundaries of the parish, civil and religious. It is a ritual that involves scripture reading and prayer as the group stops at certain boundary marks such as an old and respected tree or a picturesque rock, or perhaps a beautiful view looking across a valley. It is a ritual that asks for God’s blessing and protection on the fields and crops, on the village and the countryside, on the people that make up the community. Rogare, the root of rogation, means to ask.
I remember watching the procession in Oxford that Ascension Day with curiosity and wonder. Why would anyone participate in such a ritual? What was so important about this practice? Over the years I have thought about, researched, and written about the practice of Rogation Day, but this year the practice seems even more important and I long to a be part of a procession.
You see this annual ritual, which dates back to the 5th century, is about more than praying over crops and boundaries. It is about justice and kindness and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). George Herbert, a poet and Anglican priest, gave the following reasons to observe Rogation Day and beat the boundaries: 1) a blessing of God for the fruits of the field; 2) Justice in the preservation of the bounds; 3) Charity, in living, walking and neighborly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if they be any; 4) Mercy, in relieving the poor by distribution of goods that might be needed. For Herbert it was Micah 6:8 in action and that practice appeals to me!
In the liturgy for Rogation Day there are prayers of blessing for so much of God’s people and creation. There are prayers of blessing or bread and vine, for soil and water, for seeds and tools, for fields and pastures, for orchards and gardens, for rain and sun, for all of nature. In the midst of these blessings there is also a strong emphasis on reconciliation—between neighbors, especially those within the church who might be at odds. Rogation Day brings forth an appreciation for God’s gifts of nature and the relationship between nature and humanity.
This spring I have been noticing nature–the greens of the earth as all of nature renews around us. The subtle changes in the greens of the trees as the leaves burst forth have caught my attention and I have noticed them day after day, in the early light of the morning and in the shadowed light of the late afternoon. I have noticed how the drops of early morning rain are caught and savored by the leaves and how the heat of the sun causes the leaves to grow larger almost as I am watching them.
The gorgeous colors of green all around me this spring have offered a backdrop to the blooms of spring blossoms and flowers. The purple of the rhododendrons were especially showy this year against the deep, refreshing green of their leaves. The blooms of the dogwoods—white and pink—were deep and intense in their colors against the bright green of their leaves. Everywhere I looked this spring the fervent greens were vibrant and passionate as if nature was trying to get my attention and tell me something of major importance.
Maybe the greens of spring were more noticeable to me because I have been reading the writings and prayers of Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth century Abbess and mystic, who understood the healing arts and wrote glorious music of praise and thanksgiving to God. She was an ecologist and understood the relationship between nature and the soul. She understood and wrote about the God and the color green. For Hildegard, the presence of God was expressed in the color green and she saw the presence of God all around her. The green of the earth was vibrant and intense, growing and fresh and this was also the way she saw God.
My favorite of her prayers expresses her understanding of the greening of God—viriditas.
Most royal greening verdancy,
Rooted in the sun,
You shine with radiant light,
in this circle of earthly existence
You shine so finely,
it surpasses understanding.
God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms
of the mystery of God.
Viriditas may be the union of two Latin words meaning green and truth. For Hildegard, the word viriditas offered to her the understanding of how God speaks to us in the vibrancy of nature—the growth, the vitality, the response to the gifts of sun and rain and soil. For Hildegard, the word viriditas also challenged her to speak on behalf of God’s vibrant nature and so many of her writings reflect her mystical experiences as she “saw” the possibilities of what could happen to nature.
In her visions, Hildegard saw the pain and sorrow of the whole world reflected in the struggle and demise of nature. She knew that God was asking her to speak on behalf of the greening of nature, the cycle of the seasons and to call attention to the struggle that nature endures when humanity neglects the care that God asks us to give to one of the most precious gifts that God could give us. No doubt, as Hildegard saw that nature could rot and fade away if humanity neglected it, she also saw that one of our connections to greening and the love and power of the Holy Spirit would fade away. She was horrified at that thought and so she worked to preserve the nature around her, taking care of trees and growing and collecting herbs that would produce the medicines that she needed for taking care of the sick. The fresh air and the birds of the air brought her joy and she sought to share those gifts as well.
As I have been reading Hildegard this spring, I have also been aware of the discussions of Climate Change in our own country. This past week, this discussion has increased. Since the scriptures have been written down and offered for the faithful to read, we have been given the mandate to care for the earth and nature. God created humanity for companionship and to care for God’s great joy, the earth and all that is in it. While many translations use the word dominion, it is care of the earth not domination that is commanded of us. (Genesis 1,2)
In the United Methodist church our understanding of God’s call to humanity to care for the earth is very clear in our doctrine, reflected in our Social Principles, particularly dealing with the natural world:
All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings. God has granted us stewardship of creation. We should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. (The Social Principles: the Natural World)
Clearly, the Social Principles remind us that God has called us to care for the natural world and all its gifts to us with justice, kindness, and in companionship with God.
I don’t know about you, but this spring, as I have relished, cherished, marveled, and enjoyed nature around me—especially the greening of spring—I have felt the urgency of God’s call upon my life to cherish and care for the nature around us, now more than ever. I hope you will join me in seeking ways to do this and in reminding others of God’s call upon us to cherish nature and treat it with justice and kindness as we walk humbly with God.
To God alone be glory.