Is the Story of the Ascension an Embarrassment?
What do we do about the story of the Ascension of Jesus? Do we really have to believe that if we had been there we would have seen Jesus going up into the sky? Two hymns help us to consider these questions. The first from the 1700s, the other written in the last fifty years. They are both in the hymn book Singing the Faith.
John Rackley explores this story.
The first is Hail the day that sees him rise (StF 300).
This hymn is a superb piece of Charles Wesley bible rhetoric. See if you can find all the scripture references. There is almost one per verse and in some more than one. This is how the first Methodist congregations would have come to know the bible. They sang the words of scripture.
We stand with the disciples on this Sunday betwixt and between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Wesley invites us, like them to watch Jesus go to the Father. Jesus, Wesley writes is ‘ravished from our eyes’. This is an uncomfortable analogy. Is it the Father doing the ravishing or is it the experience of the disciples and Mary Magdalene? Jesus is torn from our grasp. We have a different relationship with him now. Does this work for you?
The hymn is comfortable with the biblical view of the universe even though by the time Wesley wrote it a heaven-above, hell-below and earth in the middle world-view was questionable. What do we do about this?
One way is to spiritualise it all. We say that it is about mystery and symbol. We do not need to take it literally but make a parable of it.
Yet another way is just not to sing the offending material. I did that for years till I found some hymns I could not sing at all and then I entered what some call ‘the second naiveté’. We let the bible and Wesley just be of their time. They are part of the tradition. We use them because they help us interpret matters now. We do not try to push ourselves into a way of thinking which does not actually make sense now but we try to understand why it made sense then and wonder how we make our own sense of it now.
For the Ascension raises the question of transcendence. The hymn is like the effect of a great cathedral. We are made to look up. Christ ‘reascends his native heaven’ and ‘highest heaven receives him’ and we implore him ‘grant our hearts to you may rise’.
Over the past few decades we have been encouraged to look in and look down for spiritual nurture. God is in the depths of our souls. God is the ground of being. It works for many. But something has been lost. It is the sense of something greater, beyond us. A force, a power that is strange. Intimate yet intangible. Immortal and invisible.
The Ascension stories in Luke 24, John 20 and Acts 1 are wonderful mythic creations which seek to describe the indescribable – they put us in our place – helplessly looking up and away from ourselves into the skies, infinity and beyond – yet knowing ‘still he loves the earth he leaves’ and me and you.
The second hymn is We sing the praise of Jesus (StF 315) by Norman Wallwork who is a well-known liturgist and hymn writer and in this hymn sets out in a simple form what we can believe about the Ascension of Jesus.
- Jesus arrives in heaven as a triumphant conqueror of death and evil
- We sing his praises with heaven-given joy
- Jesus prays for us
- We pray in expectation for the ‘living fire’
- We are prepared to worship in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit.
The Ascension myth is a crucial transition stage in the development of the Christian understanding of God. We might remember the stories of Jesus. We may bow before the Cross. We marvel at the Resurrection but there is more going on than just historic events. The activity of God is not a good idea to be considered but an experience to be explored.
This is a special kind of exploration. It is the exploration of prayer. It is prayer based in the theology of love; for we are commanded to love God with all that we are and all that we have; not just believe in God. We know God through the love we are given and from Ascension Day we pray this prayer for all in the Church
Come Holy Spirit
Fill the hearts of your faithful people and
Kindle in them the fire of your love
It is this fire that can flame in our homes and our hearts. It is this fire which can re-create our devotion. A devotion that is not dependent on ‘what happens in church’. It is a loving of God which let’s each day be the Lord’s Day and witnesses ‘earth and heaven ring’ with the praises of God.
It reminds me of the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) from her poem Aurora Leigh
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees takes off his shoes
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
This hymn and the season it serves invite us to see the Church as she really is created to be – a priestly community open to the world, open to God and facilitating the connection between the grace of heaven and the need of earth. Truly a Church of the Ascension.