Beating the Bounds
I wrote about Rogationtide a couple of weeks ago addressing the question “Why don’t Christians celebrate Earth Day?” Well I’m taking up the same topic today, as we are now in the midst of Rogationtide.
The observance of Rogation Days started yesterday with an addition to the end of the regular Sunday service. After the Dismissal, the altar party did not proceed to the sacristy as they usually do. Instead, they followed the verger, congregation in tow, out the doors of the church and down to Riverside Park, all the while singing All Things Bright and Beautiful. It was our version of beating the bounds.
The Beating of the Bounds started in the fifth century, in Vienne, to ask God for protection from volcanic eruptions. Apparently Gaul was beset with volcanoes at the time. Processions took place at which time prayers for protection would be offered up to God. The custom caught on and, with a little tweaking, spread throughout Christendom. By the year 747, Rogation Days were being celebrated in England. Many holidays, including Rogationtide, were suppressed by Henry VIII, but “the perambulation of the parish at Rogationtide” was reinstated by his daughter, Elizabeth I. This custom had a practical (secular) import as well as a spiritual one. Beating the bounds of the parish defines its limits, determining such practical matters as who may rightly be buried in the churchyard and who should be tithing to whom. It was a way of marking out property, and it was often the job of children to accompany the priest, parish clerk, and Lord Mayor on these rounds so that those who would live the longest would be able to remember from year to year just where the markers of the parish were located.
The bounds of our parish apparently go right down 87th Street to the park. When we got to the park, we read a selection from the Gospel of Saint Matthew:
After the reading, we said a prayer that we might always have our eyes opened to behold the gracious hand of the Lord in all His works; the park and people were asperged and censed; and we returned to the church singing All Creatures of Our God and King. (I wish I could find a beautiful or inspired, even ironic version of this hymn.) The service ended back at the church with the litany, the Lord’s Prayer, and this prayer:
Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth: We humbly pray that thy gracious providence may give and preserve to our use the harvest of the land and seas, and may prosper all who labour to gather them, that we, who constantly receive good things from thy hand may always give thee thanks through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God forever and ever. Amen.
One may say that seems all well and good, but it still has the faintest odor of popery and superstition, and that superstition may be connected to Paganism. As far as the possibility of Paganism goes I don’t really see a problem there. One of the wonderful things about Christianity is its ability to acculturate traditions, imbuing them with grace. Simply because there may be an older custom, religion, or superstition at the root of what is now a Christian tradition does not make it any less Christian. Popery however…
I was raised in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. I now consider myself an Evangelical Catholic, and I worship at an Anglo-Catholic church. Although I find the Episcopal, or Anglican, church to be closer in practice and doctrine to the Lutheran church in which I grew up than any Lutheran church I’ve attended regularly in the last 20 years, I do find myself questioning some of their traditional practices. I ask myself what would have been the customs of the church of the Augsburg Confession. Well, Luther specifically addresses the question of Rogationtide goings on in one of his letters of counsel to George Buchholzer on December 4, 1539:
With respect to what troubles you – whether a cope or alb is to be worn in the procession during Rogation week and on Saint Mark’s Day, and whether a procession around the churchyard is to be held with a pure responsory on Sundays and with the Salve festa dies on Easter without, however, carrying the Sacrament about – this is my advice: If your lord, the margrave and elector, etc. [Joachim II, Elector of Brandenburg], permits the gospel of Jesus Christ to be preached with purity and power and without human additions and the two sacraments of Baptism an the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to be administered and offered according to their institution, if he is willing to abolish the invocation of saints (as if they were mediators, intercessors, and deliverers) and the carrying about of the Sacrament in procession, and if he is willing to discontinue daily Masses, vigils, and Masses for the dead and the consecration of water, salt, and herbs and allow only pure responsories and hymns, Latin and German, in procession, go along in God’s name and carry a silver or gold cross and wear a cope or alb of velvet, silk, or linen. And if one cope or alb is not enough for your lord, the elector, wear three of them, as the high priest Aaron did when he put on three vestments, one on top of the other and all of them beautiful and attractive [cf. Lev. 8:7] (after which ecclesiastical vestments were called ornata in the papacy).
Moreover, if His Grace is not satisfied that you go about singing and ringing bells in procession only once, go about seven times, as Joshua compassed the city of Jericho seven times with the Children of Israel, making a great shout and blowing trumpets [Joshua 6:4,5,16]. If your lord, the margrave, desires it, let His grace leap and dance at the head of the procession with harps, drums, cymbals, and bells, as David danced before the Ark of the Lord when it was carried into the city of Jerusalem [II Sam. 6:14,15]. I am fully satisfied, for none of these things (as long as no abuse is connected with them) adds anything to the gospel or detracts from it. Only do not let such things be regarded as necessary for salvation and thus bind the consciences of men. How I would rejoice and thank God if I could persuade the pope and the papists of this! If the pope gave me the freedom to go about and preach and only commanded me (with a dispensation) to hitch on a pair of trousers, I should be glad to do him the favor of wearing them.
As concerns the elevation of the Sacrament in the Mass, this is an optional ceremony and no danger can come to the Christian faith as a result of it, provided nothing else is added. Accordingly you may lift up the Sacrament in God’s name as long as it is desired.
We had ample cause to abolish the elevation here in Wittenberg, and perhaps you do not have such cause in Berlin. Nor shall we restore the ceremony unless some urgent reason requires us to do so, for it is an optional thing and a human exercise rather than a divine commandment. Only what God commands is necessary; the rest is free.
Granted, Luther is being a bit sarcastic here. But he’s not being anti-tradition. Luther’s all in favor of Rogationtide processions (what a relief!), but with this important caveat: that the Gospel is preserved; the sacraments are maintained; and there are no false doctrines creeping in around the edges. Luther’s litmus test for the validity or value of any tradition is not whether or not we like it or whether or not it’s expedient: it’s whether or not the tradition supports the Gospel and sacraments.
Why then are so many traditions being set aside when so many so clearly support the Gospel and the sacraments? Why does the Lutheran church look like this:
When did we become Baptist?