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Angela Tilby: Hail the Ascension hymns

26 May 2017


Glory: The Ascension of Jesus among the apostles and the Virgin by Cavalier d'Arpino in the church of Santa Prassede, Rome

Glory: The Ascension of Jesus among the apostles and the Virgin by Cavalier d'Arpino in the church of Santa Prassede, Rome

JUST before Ascension Day 1999, I had an operation on my feet to cor­rect my hallux valgus — that means bunion, but the medical Latin makes it sound a bit more dignified.

At the time, I was a tutor at West­cott House. A number of stu­dents found my condition amusing enough to send me Ascension­tide cards depicting the wounded feet of our Blessed Lord disappearing into the cloud. One even contained a scrip­tural quotation, Isaiah 52.7: “How beautiful are the feet. . .”, with the hope that mine would soon feel as light as air. They didn’t, and one bunion came back into permanent residence, but that is another saga.

The problem with the ascension is that Luke’s account, Acts 1.1-11, mandatory both on Ascension Day itself and the Sunday follow­ing, is just too well contrived. We see the disciples looking up into heaven; we almost see the beautiful scarred feet disappearing into the cloud, though they are not mentioned.

Yet the sheer vividness of the account leaves me uneasy. The de­­parture of the Lord at some point after the resurrection seems to me to need some reticence and mystery (as in Matthew’s commission on the mountain-top, Mark’s longer ending, Luke’s alternative version at the end of his Gospel, and John’s endless play on the theme of the Lord who descends and ascends).

But, in Acts, Luke gives us a techni­color apotheosis in which it is hard to ignore the suspicion that he is imitating previous ascensions of holy men from Jewish sources (Enoch, Elisha), and perhaps even pagan literature (Hercules set among the stars). I find it hard to preach on, be­cause, although the theology of the ascension is extra­ordinarily rich, Luke’s nar­rative is so literal that it gets in the way. I taught in a prep school before uni­versity. My class of eight-year-olds (30 years before the bunion opera­tion) took the story to imply that Jesus had gone up like a rocket and might even now be orbiting Earth.

Hymns offer a corrective, blend­ing in other scriptural themes. I love Wesley’s “Hail the day that sees him rise”, with its riff on the Ascension Day collect pray­ing that our “hearts may thither rise”, and that we may “find our heaven of heavens in thee”. But perhaps even more encour­ag­ing is Christopher Wordsworth’s great hymn “See the Conqueror mounts in triumph”:


Jesus reigns, adored by Angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine Ascension
We by faith behold our own.


That is the beginning of Christian humanism: just as God is pleased to dwell with us in the incarnation, so we are now for ever part of God’s life. Good news.

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