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Look upward

24 May 2019

ASCENSION DAY, after 40 days of Easter, is one of the jewels of the Church’s year. It celebrates an article of our faith: “he . . . ascended into heaven.” It has inspired some of the most beautiful hymns and anthems. Hail thee, festival day! It is the moment, indeed, when, if we followed Christ through Holy Week to Easter, we can, perhaps, begin, with the first disciples, to feel the turmoil and confusion that accompany having a dying and rising Lord quieten into something that we may call peace. Christ will not leave us comfortless, but we should not rush to the Pentecostal outpouring; for he is seated at the right hand of God, and that is, for a time, enough. “Be still and know that I am God.” O come, let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker. Christ is the King, and if we reaffirm it now and on the ecclesiastical new year’s eve (the feast of Christ the King is a festival introduced in response to particular political circum­stances in the 20th century), it is not more than his due.

It is a pity, then, that Ascension Day is poorly kept: as so often in life, it is the sins of omission that go unremarked. The initiative Thy Kingdom Come is helping to put it back in the diary in some places where it had been forgotten — and why? Because, it was thought, on this one Thursday in the year, the people had a right to other priorities. One of the Spirit’s gifts in the Church’s calendar, however, is an element of objectivity and a sense of perspective. Not in the mood for worship? The Most Holy Trinity is God, and we are his creatures. It will be a sorry day when the people of England are never distracted from their weekday business by bells bidding them to come and adore.

Big events in big spaces with big screens at a convenient time before or at Pentecost for all the young people (as is hoped) to come to will not be a bad thing. But it would say a great deal more in favour of the Church’s spiritual health if in far more churches on Thursday morning, before the day’s work began, a body of the faithful were quietly receiving the holy communion out of love for their risen and ascended Lord, to offer a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice to the God whose will is to exalt them, too. They need not be part of a targeted generation or a special mission initiative: just plebs sancta Dei. It is rare these days to have an early sung eucharist, but its very novelty might appeal now to those who are attracted by religious practice that goes the extra mile — surely one ingredient in today’s renewed interest in the religious life. If the climate-change prophets are right, never has there been a time when human beings needed more to kneel before the throne of God and implore Christ’s mercy to avert the downfall of their race. But that is not the main purpose of worship in and of itself, any more than church growth is. In a world in which sin lures the human gaze ever subtly back to self, even in the most pious endeavours, Ascension Day turns Christians’ eyes to heaven to lose themselves in wonder, and say in their hearts “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ.”

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