In one week’s time, the Church will celebrate the Feast of the Ascension on May 21. It is a feast day that happens every year and is considered one of the principle feasts of the church year. On the Sunday prior to the feast of the Ascension, the church recognizes another type of celebration called Rogation Sunday.
Rogation days originated in the 5th century in France when a bishop called for days of fasting and prayer to ward off a disaster. As the practice took root in the church, they took on a different perspective in the life of the church. In England, the rogation days are most associated with the season of planting in the spring. The vicar of the parish would process around the fields of the parish (used here more like we would think about counties) while reciting psalms and litanies. In the United States, rogation days are associated with agriculture, fishing, rural life, and the care of creation.1 It is on this last point that I would like to spend a little time with you, and I hope to connect the care of creation to the ways that we will continue to care for each other in the practices of our common life as a community of faith.
I will confess that the project that I have set myself is too big for me to adequately address all of the facets of these topics in a blog post; thus, I am hoping to begin a conversation that we can continue to host in our community as we grow into a new future that is already here, as I intimated in last week’s post.
Perhaps the starting point is for us to explore the doctrine of creation. In classical Christian theology, the Church has long held that creation came forth from God. Out of God’s being, God calls creation forth in and through God’s uttering, what Rowan Williams helpfully describes as “making external ‘outering’.”2 In the same essay, Williams states that God is not creating in such a way that power X is exercised over object Y. Prior to creation being, there was nothing outside of God. In the external outering that God makes, creation is formed, and we have continued to speak of that outering through the creation stories as found in the Book of Genesis. (I hasten to add that there are multiple tellings of that story within Genesis. You can find the stories in Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:5-25.) The utterance of God summons creation into existence, into being.3 We, as part of that creation, share in the experience of creatureliness. We understand that there is a finite boundary between the self and another – whether that other is God, another human being, or creation itself. While I exist in creation and am defined by the creation in which I live, I recognize that my own identity flows out of my understanding of my position as creature. I am not the one that utters creation into being but am part of that which is being uttered.4
In my position as a creature, I seek identity for the self, and the great myth in the United States is that I am able to define that identity outside of the perspective of the other. It is here that we have come up with the notion of personal liberty and personal responsibility. As a culture, we have failed to recognize that my identity is shaped by those with whom I am in relationship, and it extends ever outward to also include the corner of creation in which I find myself. I am shaped by the landscapes that surround me just as much as I shape those landscapes. Thus, the care of creation is not a partisan act that places me on one side of the proverbial aisle or the other. Instead, the care of creation is what will shape my own identity as a creature. As I care for creation (or not), I will find that my own identity shifts because of the ways that I practice relationship and hospitality, which we may call stewardship, with the whole of God’s creation. The very stewardship that I practice with creation becomes defining in how I practice stewardship of relationship with others that I meet and vice versa.
I might accept that faithful stewardship of creation is part and parcel of what it means to love my neighbor as an extension of the self. If I understand creation to be part of the subject that helps me to form my own sense of identity, then it becomes increasingly difficult for me to think of creation (or another human being) as anything other than a vital and necessary extension of my own identity that continues to be constructed by the very people, animals, plants, and landscapes that inform my life. The modality of living in this way invites me to understand that I am called neither to dependence nor to independence; instead, I am called to seek interdependence in and through the relationships that I hold dear.
The interdependence of our relational capacity is key to what it means to be human being. The story of creation tells a story of Adam and Eve receiving their identities from each other. In the second creation narrative, Adam says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23a) Like Adam, we first begin to understand our own identities because of the human relationships we hold dear, but eventually, we also become aware of the ways in which the landscapes in which I have lived shaped the very identity that I may now hold dear. I begin to understand that the need to care for creation is a need to care for the self, for the identity that I have. In a recent article in ABC Religion & Ethics, Luke Bretherton writes, “COVID-19 points to the need to move beyond attempts to balance individual freedom with collective need. It demands a more synthetic approach. The true, good or flourishing life cannot be reduced to individual happiness. We are not atoms bouncing against each other but mutually vulnerable, interdependent creatures whose flourishing depends on being embedded in just and loving forms of common life.”5 The synthetic approach that Bretherton points out is the work of moving towards interdependence in which the other is no longer perceived as a threat but as a gift to be received and cherished. And of course, the other has to include the ways that I receive and cherish the gift of creation. The interdependence is precisely what allows me to know flourishing, to know the abundant life of which Christ speaks in the Gospel according to John.6 It is abundant because I become aware of the multitude of gifts offered to me in the mundanity of the daily routine.
And perhaps it is here that we should turn our attention to the change of the daily routine that humanity has recently experienced. We went from being social beings that relied upon person to person interaction to a routine that asked us first to stay home in an effort to protect the lives of those whom we love – our friends, our family, our community, and even strangers in our midst. The act of caring for creation, of practicing stewardship in my relationship with the landscape in which I live, is now an act of relationship with human beings that I cherish. The steps that I take, no matter how tenuous or carefully thought out, are fraught with risk and may lead to disaster no matter my intention. I am asked to think carefully about those things which are necessary not simply to protect my own life but also the life of others. And of course, if I understand the other as an extension of the self, I can quickly understand that by protecting the life of the other I am taking steps to protect my own life and my own identity. I am moving towards that place of interdependence in which I begin to recognize that the boundaries that exist between myself and another are the invitations to see the other as a gift to be loved and cherished. When I don a face mask while in public spaces (i.e. grocery stores, pharmacies, etc), I am taking a step to love the common life that I share with everyone else living in this corner of God’s creation. In taking steps to protect the other, I am protecting the self, and I, along with my neighbors, am able to experience something of that abundant life.
For our parish, the abundant life and seeking to protect our common life is going to include abstaining from in-person worship for longer. While we all hunger for being able to gather and to partake of the Holy Eucharist, we are being invited to seek communion through the distance that we share as an act of solidarity with an important part of who I am: the neighbor and the stranger. Our parish has a task force that will be creating a plan for when we are able to gather for in-person worship at some point in the future, but we also are asked to understand that we need to encounter the question, “How do I faithfully steward the gift of relationship that I share with these individuals at Church of the Epiphany?” It is a question that invites us to seek the common good for our community, and it is a question that places the needs of the most vulnerable among us as the highest priority for our consideration. We know that we will not be having in-person worship at any point in the immediate future, but we also know that this is part of what it looks like for us to love the other as a part of the self. It is a recognition that “we have to act in deeply ambiguous circumstances, unable to predict the outcome of our actions, while what we do may well make things worse and that doing a good thing can cause great harm.”7
- Rogation Days. (2013, March 7). Retrieved May 14, 2020, from https://episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/rogation-days
- Williams, R. (2000). On Christian Theology. Hoboken, NJ, United States: Wiley. p.72.
- Ibid. p. 68.
- Ibid., p. 71
- COVID-19 presents a moral crisis, not just a medical one. (2020, March 31). Retrieved May 14, 2020, from https://www.abc.net.au/religion/luke-bretherton-coronavirus-as-a-moral-crisis-not-just-medical/12107738
- John 10:10 NRSV
- Tragedy and triage in a time of pandemic. (2020, April 7). Retrieved May 14, 2020, from https://www.abc.net.au/religion/luke-bretherton-tragedy-and-triage-in-the-time-of-a-pandemic/12127044