Getting the mood music right
The mood for Ascension is tricky, especially when you are writing a tune for the psalm. It is not straightforward, even though the words seem to be. The emotions for this feast – for it is a great feast – are unusually mixed (and I have written more about them here).
A triumphant psalm
The psalm words are full of joy and excitement, and it’s another of the psalms where it’s difficult to think of it in a context other than a Christian one, although of course it was not written to be about Jesus and the Ascension. The trumpets, which sound repeatedly because they are in the Response, are an irresistible setter of the mood of the psalm as we sing it. It has to be triumphant. Like all Responsorial Psalms, it is meant to give shape to our response to the first reading.
The Ascension narrative
This first reading is the very beginning of Acts (chapter 1, vv1-11), so it’s the first piece of narrative after the end of the Gospels. It describes very simply how the Lord tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and await the coming of the Holy Spirit. They gather together, and they ask him yet again whether now is the time for him to sort out the current political situation. I am sure he must have sighed at this point. He tells them not to concern themselves with God’s timing, but to wait. They will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes, and become Jesus’ witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, throughout Judaea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’. It’s like a panning shot in a film as the camera moves further and further out. Then it says; ‘When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight’, and you feel that no-one actually noticed when he left the ground, the way that a train or a ship can start travelling without you noticing.
Interrupted by messengers
But they are looking ‘intently’ at the sky as he is going, when they are interrupted: ‘suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.’ We have met these two before, or someone very like them, at the empty tomb. John calls them two angels in white. Matthew and Mark each have only one; Matthew’s is an angel of the Lord, with an appearance like lightning and raiment white as snow, whereas Mark has a less intimidating young man sitting, dressed in white. Luke has two men (and whoever wrote Luke, we think, wrote Acts), and he makes the parallels with the earlier appearance very clear: the women go to the tomb and they can’t find the body. Then ‘while they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel’ (Luke 24 v4). Either God’s messengers are there already or you don’t see them arrive, because your attention is distracted (how true).
Even if these messengers from God had been wearing different clothes the second time, I think you would recognise them by what they say and their style. They are so down-to-earth (surprisingly) and practical. ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.’ And this time, ‘Why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go’, (which might well be a reason to keep an eye on the sky, except the Lord said it is not up to us to know when). What they say is non-judgmental but definitely carries a note of encouragement not to hang around but to start getting on with the job.
The feelings of those left behind: from triumph…
So this is the mood we find at Ascension. We rejoice in the Lord’s going, because he is going to his father; but we are left behind. It’s like seeing somebody off, – you celebrate, you hold them tightly, you talk about keeping in contact, but the painful moment comes when you have to let go, wave, turn round, go back home and carry on. The psalm has to be triumphant, because that is the seeing-off part; then the mood shifts towards the promises, the waiting, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
…to determination and anticipation
But we do have the promises that Jesus will indeed keep in contact, that he is always there, and we know that we are waiting for the Great Comforter, ‘of all Consolers best’, as the Holy Spirit has been called for so long. He needs to be, because it is always sad when someone leaves, even if it is to a good place. You look forward, optimistically, to another meeting, but it is normal to feel sad. Thank goodness I don’t have to get all these complex emotions into the psalm setting. According to my children, I am the only person who cries at the end of the last Harry Potter film (when the next generation goes off to Hogwarts), but I always hate it when they go away, because I love them. After we put them on aeroplanes, we have to pause in the carpark to recover before we drive home and carry on. We long for the time when they will return.
Waiting in the upper room again (but differently)
If you celebrate Ascension on Thursday, you will see on (Seventh) Sunday that the narratives almost take a pause and tread water for a little while. We are all waiting for the Comforter, but we don’t know anything else about him yet. It is as if the group is holding its collective breath until the arrival of the Breath of God.
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