Rogation Days and Rogation Sunday

These are some thoughts on Rogation Days, Ascension Day, Easter, the Passover festival and Bread, by Jonathan Clark, who is Churchwarden at St John's, Washingborough.

What's a Rogation Day anyway?

Good question. Rogation days are days of prayer and fasting in Western Christianity. They are observed with processions and the Litany of the Saints. The so-called major rogation is held on 25 April. The minor rogations are held on Monday to Wednesday preceding Ascension Day which will be on a Thursday. The word rogation comes from the Latin verb rogare, meaning "to ask", which reflects the beseeching of God for the appeasement of his anger and for protection from calamities.

What's Ascension Day?

After Christ rose from the dead on Easter Day, he appeared to the disciples several times before eventually being raised up from Earth into Heaven and into the presence of God. (Luke 24:30-53, Mark 16:19-20, Acts 1:6-11). Christ's departure from Earth to Heaven is celebrated on Ascension Day.

So when is Ascension Day?

It depends. Ascension day is the 40th day of Easter (or the 39th day after Easter if you prefer). Because Easter Day is always a Sunday, Ascension Day will always be on a Thursday. Because Easter can be anywhere from the 22nd March to the 25th April (in Western Christianity), Ascension Day similarly moves about.

And Rogation Sunday?

Is the Sunday before the Rogation Days. If we stick with this year's date, Ascension Day is Thursday 21st May 2020, so the Rogation days are Monday 18th, Tuesday 19th and Wednesday 20th May. The Sunday before is the 17th May 2020.

So Ascension Day is linked to Easter. Why does Easter move about so much?

Because Easter is tied to the Jewish festival of The Passover. Generally The Passover is considered to be one of the most important festivals in Judaism. And it was just as important in Jesus's time. Remember that Jesus was a Jew and he would have celebrated the Jewish festivals. The Gospels tell us that the "Last Supper" (The last meal Jesus ate before his Crucifixion) was a Passover meal. Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover before Jesus was arrested and sent to die on a cross. Therefore the events of Easter coincide largely with the events of The Passover. The Hebrew calendar (used to determine when the Passover is) is a lunar calendar and therefore the date of the Passover moves about because the phases of the moon don't line up with our modern Gregorian calendar. Therefore Easter is a moveable feast as well. You often find that the festival of the Passover and Easter overlap, although due to different methods of calculation (see below), there are occasions when they don't.

So what was the Passover?

Now we have to go back to the time of Moses. Jews celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. It celebrates the Israelites fleeing from Egypt as described in the Bible, especially in the Book of Exodus. The Israelites were instructed by God to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-born in these homes, hence the name Passover.

The Israelites were also instructed not to make leavened bread before their departure, because there would not be enough time to wait around for the dough to rise. So instead they were instructed to make unleavened bread, which is much quicker. The Passover is also known as the feast of unleavened bread in the Torah. Thus matzo (flat unleavened bread) is eaten during Passover and it is a tradition of the festival to this day. This is why at Communion we use those thin wafers instead of normal bread, because those wafers are unleavened bread and unleavened bread is what Jesus and his disciples would have been using to celebrate the Passover.

So we have to use unleavened bread at Communion?

I may be getting a bit out of my depth here (liturgically speaking). However my understanding from reading the Canons (liturgical law) is that in the Church of England there is provision for using both leavened and unleavened bread at the Eucharist. However we tend to follow the Roman Catholic Church in this respect and mainly use unleavened bread in the form of those wafers. My understanding is that in the Roman Catholic Church, only unleavened bread is permitted. Interestingly in some of the Eastern churches only leavened bread is permitted, the reasoning here being that unleavened bread was the old way and Jesus Christ by his Resurrection paved a new way for all peoples, hence they use new bread.

There are all sorts of liturgical discussions going on (even to this day) about the bread we use at the celebration of the Eucharist. There was a bit of a to-do about gluten-free wafers when they were introduced, in so far as can it be bread if it doesn't contain gluten? Happily that one has been resolved and the use of gluten-free wafers alongside the standard wafers is now widely adopted. It gets more interesting outside of Europe, especially in China and Japan where bread is not the staple food it is here. So what do you use for bread if you don't have any bread? I'm kind of happy that I don't have to sort that one out.

OK. So back to Easter. How do you know when it's going to be?

It's a bit complicated. The early church naturally based it on the date of the Passover Festival, which starts on the 14th day of Nisan (a Hebrew lunar month) and lasts about a week. This meant using the Hebrew calendar to work out when the Passover was. By the 3rd century, the Christian church was questioning the Jewish method for calculating when the month of Nisan was. The Hebrew calendar was very disorderly and some early Christians argued that contemporary Jews were identifying the wrong lunar month as the month of Nisan, by choosing a month whose 14th day fell before the equinox.

Eventually a meeting was called in 325 AD in what was then Nicaea (now Iznik in Turkey). This became known as the First Council of Nicaea. The council had several purposes, namely to establish the Divine Nature of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, to establish a creed (or a declaration and summary of the Christian faith), which later became known as the Nicene Creed we use in services today and to establish a method for calculating the date of Easter. The method of calculation has been revised several times since then, but the Council of Nicaea marks the point where it departed from being based on the Hebrew Calendar.

Moving to the present day, there is an additional problem in that the date of Easter depends on which calendar you are using. In Western Christianity we use the Gregorian calendar, but Eastern Christianity use the Julian calendar. Sometimes Easter in both the Eastern and Western churches lines up, or at least nearly lines up (to within a week or so) and sometimes they can be 35 days apart. Also in the Julian calendar, Easter can get pushed out into early May, which can't happen in the Gregorian calendar.

Anyway, we'll just concentrate on Western Christianity if that's OK. So Easter (and by Easter I mean Easter Day or Easter Sunday) is the first Sunday after the first full moon which is on or after the March Equinox.

Now the March equinox wanders about a bit. It could be as early as the 19th March and it could be as late as the 21st March. The western Christian churches decided to fix the date as the 21st March no matter what.

Suppose your full moon occurs on March 21st, the same day as the equinox. Well that's OK and perfectly valid. Easter Day is the Sunday after the full moon (it can't be the same day as the full moon), so if your full moon was on the 21st March and the following day (22nd March) is a Sunday, then that will be Easter Day. 22nd March is the earliest that Easter Day can possibly be.

Now let's assume that you've just missed the full moon. The full moon happened on the 20th March. You are going to have to wait 29 days for another one, because that's how long the lunar cycle is. This brings you to the 18th April. Now if the 18th April is a Sunday, then it can't be Easter Day, it will have to be Palm Sunday, because Easter Day has to be the Sunday after the full moon. Therefore Easter Day will have to be seven days later which is the 25th April. The 25th April is the latest that Easter Day can be.