Scared to go out? : the Ascension

Ascension and the end of Eastertide
Ascending Christ
here’s a wonderfully dynamic Ascension, with Jesus almost crowdsurfing, treading on the apostles’ heads and moving outside the frame

The feast of the Ascension has changed even during my lifetime.  It used to happen on the Thursday of the sixth week after Easter, and it was a Holiday of Obligation; now the feast is often (in some countries always) transferred to the following Sunday.  You could argue that this is to make it more important rather than less so, but you need to be sure what your church is planning before you commit to singing either the Ascension psalm (46/47), or the psalm for Seventh Sunday (26/27) because your parish celebrated the Ascension on Thursday.  Both are up on the website.  Whether you celebrate it on the Thursday or the Sunday, the Ascension is a great feast; but our emotions are mixed.

Triumphant departure

I wrote about the psalm for Ascension a couple of years ago, but I want to discuss it again, because it was only a brief discussion (and there aren’t any pictures in it). I still agree with what I said about the psalm and the First Reading.  Psalm 46/47 is a brilliant triumphal psalm following the account of the Ascension, celebrating as the Lord returns to take his place at the Father’s right hand after his victory over sin and death. So huge rejoicing, trumpets and fireworks. The trumpets sound at every iteration of the Response, so the mood is of unalloyed jubilation. 

with the angels standing by to close the beautiful starry curtains

It is all about the greatness of God and the joy at the return of the triumphant King (all your Tolkien bells should be ringing here).   It’s difficult to imagine this psalm in a pre-Christian setting, but it’s worth trying : it must have been even more about earthly triumph and splendour, with the King taking charge of the Kingdom here on earth, as the apostles keep hopefully suggesting.  But for us now the Lord has gone, and we are left ‘staring into the sky’, and wondering what to do next, – because we are still here.

Seeing someone off
Ascension
Jesus moving calmly to sit at God’s right hand

It’s always hard when someone leaves. Even if you decide not to hang around at the station or airport, the moment when you finish waving to the traveller, turn and go, is always a downer. You have to start getting on with ordinary things (which may have been piling up in the interim), now that your guest/child/parent has gone; you may even need to change out of the person that you were (host/parent/child), into a different person who deals with the other aspects of your life. It’s much easier being the person who leaves; the emotions are less complicated.

Ascension
Jesus floating blissfully up to heaven

  They may be sad to go, but they also look forward to where they are going, especially if they are returning in triumph, as Jesus indubitably is.  And while that person is there, obviously you concentrate on them and their feelings, you try to mirror their joy and excitement, leaving your feelings to be dealt with later.

After the Resurrection…

We can clearly see this happening in the First Reading, which is the same in all three years of the Liturgical Cycle, unlike some of the other readings.  It’s the very beginning of Acts that we are given, rather than the near-ending of Mark or Luke, and this is significant in itself, because we’re moving to a new reality; starting again with a new narrative.  The apostles have not been doing very much in the interim, everyone would have been exhausted as well as frightened; there is very little of the Gospels still to read after the death of Jesus and the hesitant attempts to put the Resurrection down in words that are faithful and can be understood. 

…but before Pentecost

The men and women of Jesus’ inner circle are sad and terrified after the Crucifixion, and they spend most of their time huddled together in the Upper Room, trying not to draw attention to themselves.  Then the news comes of the Resurrection (brought to them by the women, whose testimony they discount), but slowly they begin to allow themselves to be convinced, as Jesus comes in mysteriously through locked doors at meal times, and talks and eats with them, answering questions and encouraging them to touch him.  They don’t seem to go out much, except when they have to (the women to wash the body, Mark 16, the couple who have to go to Emmaus, Luke 24, a fishing expedition for food and to pretend everything is normal, John 21).

Waiting to see the way ahead

Jesus has told them that although he is going away, someone else is coming, to comfort and strengthen them, and in Luke’s account (which precedes the doings in Acts), he specifically tells them to’stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high’ (24.49). 

Ascension
I particularly like the feet and the footprints in this one, Jesus literally heading into the sunset

For his departure, he leads them out of Jerusalem, to a hill in Galilee near Bethany, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived, comfortingly familiar territory, and there he disappears gently from their sight.  So they go back to Jerusalem, back to the Upper Room; and they wait.

Life in lockdown, before and after the Ascension

I could have written all that using the new vocabulary which has become so current, describing the apostles as self-isolating within their household, only socialising within their little group, only going out for essential travel and shopping for food, and it would have amounted to the same thing.  For his Ascension, Jesus takes them out for a walk to a hill which is ‘within a Sabbath’s journey'(Acts 1.12) of the city, which makes it sound even more like a permitted exercise period.  This year in particular the situation of the disciples sounds uncannily like our own.  They are afraid, and so are we.  They are trying to protect each other and avoid danger for any vulnerable members of the group, and so are we.  They didn’t know what was going to happen next, and neither do we; but they had Jesus’ promise, and so do we.

Waiting for the Comforter

We know much more than they did about the coming of the Holy Spirit, because we know that Pentecost is just around the corner, and that after it, these timid people will be back in the Temple blessing God (Luke 24.53), and carrying out all the wonderful things which Jesus predicts of them in the last few verses of the synoptic Gospels.  We still don’t know when we will be allowed back in our temples, and many families are in dire need of the Comforter, but we know he is on his way.

Montauban ascension
here’s a lovely almost cartoon Ascension, showing both ends of the process. Those goldfish are actually cherubim

 

When is a psalm not a psalm? When it’s from Daniel

Coming up shortly, the Daniel Canticle

Trinity Sunday, though a major feast, does not have the same readings every year (unlike Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter). Some feasts are inconsistent (Pentecost Vigil has the same readings every year, but the Day Mass varies according to which year it is). This sort of thing is nerdy but crucial for me and Volmar the Vebmeister; we check obsessively so that you can trust what’s on the website (and we are very sorry when we get it wrong). Sometimes the readings change but not the Psalm, sometimes vice versa; I think it’s a question of how many excellent readings there are on a given feast, which it is desirable to fit in.

Trinity Sunday psalms

So Trinity Sunday, being one of the most ineffable feasts, has three full sets of readings, and three different psalms. Year B has Psalm 32/33, Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own, and Year C the beautiful Psalm 8, O Lord our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth. Both psalms are about the wonders of Creation and man’s stewardship. But Year A, our current year, is different. The Responsorial Psalm is not even out of the Book of Psalms, it is a Canticle out of the Book of the prophet Daniel.

A Canticle in litany form

The Daniel Canticle is different in its form from our usual Responsorial psalms. It is a litany, where short lines alternate with a repeated refrain.  Most people have come across litanies to Our Lady, with the response ‘Pray for us’ after each of her titles, and litanies of lists of saints which work the same way.  It is easy to sing or say litanies antiphonally, because they divide so clearly.  The UK/Eire and OZ Lectionaries have  preserved its form as a litany, and unlike other litanies in the Psalter (Pss 116/117, 135/136), where the shape tends to be adjusted to resemble verse and chorus psalms (like Pss 45/46, 66/67), here the Response is made by the litany words cutting in after every line. So it’s different from our usual Sunday shape, but it is really effective (for one of my cantors, this is her favourite one to sing).  The US and the CAN versions have been regularised, to make it look more like the standard Responsorial Psalm, and consequently easier for the congregation, presumably.  The CAN version works because all the stanzas have been kept brief enough to keep the rhythm going. The US version has differing stanza lengths, which would have made it impossible to treat as a litany, because the rhythm is broken up. 

a bit of rhythm makes the ship easier to handle
Litanies of the sea : shanties

What sort of song has alternating lines with a caller and a chorus?  Sea shanties, that’s what.  I love sea shanties.  They are work songs, for a task where everyone needs to work together and in synch, like hauling up an anchor, hoisting a sail, turning a capstan or similar.  It doesn’t have to be maritime, but that seems to be where this style originated.  The song helps to keep the rhythm steady, the singing together keeps everyone invested, and the caller can use the traditional words or improvise and alter as he or she chooses, so long as the rhythm is the same.  One of my favourites, and an absolute classic,  is Old Billy Riley.  Liturgy is only a different sort of work, so sea shanties are entirely appropriate.  I was fascinated to discover that R. R. Terry, the Victorian Catholic convert, musicologist and for a long time choir director at Westminster Cathedral, published The Shanty Book, Part 1, Sailor Shanties, which you can read or download at Project Gutenberg.  He was also at least partly responsible for the revival of Tudor Church music.  He seems to have been a very complicated man about whom the details are surprisingly sketchy for the date, but we definitely share some interests.

The Book of Daniel
inside the fiery furnace, from a fresco in the catacombs

The Daniel Canticle comes from the third chapter of the Book of Daniel, and it is part of the song of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  The Book of Daniel is absolutely bizarre in many ways, written about 160 B.C., during a persecution and before the Maccabean revolt.  It’s the last book of messianic prophecy before the New Testament, though it doesn’t look like it because the minor prophets (which are historically older) are usually printed in a group after it, because they are all short.  Daniel is filed in with ‘Major prophets’.

Daniel, an early vegan

Daniel is one of a group of young Jewish captives, selected to be servants of King Nebuchadnezzar.  They are given new non-Jewish names, and they are to be trained and educated for three years, and fed from the king’s own table.  But Daniel is worried about observing Jewish food laws, so he asks the chief eunuch to allow him not to eat the food provided.  The chief eunuch is a kind man, so he explains that if Daniel and his three friends look thinner than the other boys, the king will be angry (and probably kill the chief eunuch).  Daniel, possibly one of the first vegans in Western literature, offers the chief eunuch a deal : for ten days, Daniel and his companions will eat only vegetables and drink water, and then the chief eunuch can compare their looks with those of the other boys still eating from the king’s table.  Daniel and the boys (of course) look better and are in better health than the others after the ten days, so they are allowed to continue, and when their training is over, Nebuchadnezzar chooses them out of the bigger group as his favoured servants because they are better and wiser in every way…..and Daniel can interpret dreams, as Joseph did, long ago.

Nebuchadnezzar in his pomp
Disaster strikes…

The story continues, with Nebuchadnezzar having dreams and killing all the other sages and diviners, who cannot help him because he cunningly demands that they first tell him his dream and then interpret it.  (Daniel can do this, because God tells him the answers.)  Nebuchadnezzar is a classic bad king, violent, rash and arrogant.  He erects a statue to be worshipped whenever ‘horn, pipe, lyre,trigon, harp, bagpipe or any other instrument’ is heard. (This list of instruments is given, like an incantation, four times.) 

The fiery furnace
here is the statue (in very fetching spotted pyjamas) with everyone else worshipping it, and the furnace below, with the angel protecting Daniel’s friends

This is in the province of Babylon, where Daniel’s three friends are governing on the king’s behalf, while Daniel stays behind at court.  The three friends refuse to worship the statue, and Nebuchadnezzar orders the fiery furnace to be made seven times hotter than usual, and the three youths to be cast into it.  The men who throw them in are burnt up just by approaching, but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walk around in the flames unscathed, praising God and praying.  First there is a long prayer from Abednego, but he’s reverted to his Jewish name, so he’s called Azariah.  It is a prayer that recognises and repents the sin which has placed the Jews in captivity and under persecution (this is why his Jewish name is used, I think, because he is representing his people here), and begs God for help. It’s a very beautiful prayer, which the Church uses for Morning Prayer on Tuesday of Week 4.  Several phrases in it are very familiar because they quote the psalms (‘and now with all our heart we follow you; we fear you and seek your face’ Daniel 3.41, cf Ps 26/27.8).

Even hotter than seven times hotter
singing under divine protection

The king’s surviving servants pile more fuel upon the furnace, but the angel of the Lord comes down, fans the flames outward and provides a cool wind in the centre where the young men are walking.  Then they sing together (at great length), and (part of) this is our Canticle for Trinity Sunday.  Daniel’s story continues, but I won’t follow it further, even though there’s a dragon and the story of Susannah, not to mention the lions.  And you won’t find the great litany in a Protestant Bible, as it is officially part of the Apocrypha, though it is used liturgically in the Book of Common Prayer.

Setting it to music : UK and OZ versions

Many shanties are modal or even minor, like the folk songs they descended from, but the words of the Daniel Canticle are blissfully joyful, so there’s no need for anything except a major key.  A rolling rhythm is very important.  The OZ and the UK version have slightly different words (and therefore tunes) for the Response, but they work in the same way.  The Response is short, but comes twice in each verse.   I decided to make the two versions slightly different, so that the movement felt more satisfactory : the first Response after line 1 goes up, to keep things going, and the second after line 3 comes down to make the end of the stanza.  This means that it is easy to feel where you are.  It’s important to explain to your congregation how it works (or at least to those who come early enough before Mass), but it’s so simple that it takes only a couple of minutes to get across.  Then printing it on the page was tricky, to make it clear.  I’ve put both Responses together at the beginning, because it actually works to sing them like that, and it gives you a neat beginning and end, which can be tricky with a litany.  I would sing it through, then get them to sing it, then sing the whole psalm, and repeat the double Response to finish.  And do sing it with a swing!  It should remind you of hauling on a rope or something like that.

CAN and US versions

I didn’t double up the Response in the CAN version, because the First Response in each stanza has been left out in their Lectionary.  The lines are so short, though, that each stanza is still only four bars, and the two bar response feels like the right weight.  The US version is much more wordy, with the stanza including the alternating lines of praise as well as the congregation then having a Response with the same feel but slightly different wording.  The length of the stanzas varies  (first one is double in length, last one has three lines), so it works like an ordinary irregular psalm, but more repetitive.

Other Canticles as psalms

There are four different Canticles which are used as Responsorial psalms : one from Exodus (the song after Pharaoh’s host has been drowned in the Red Sea), which we use at the Easter Vigil; one from Isaiah (the fountain of salvation), used at the Easter Vigil, the Baptism of the Lord and Third Sunday of Advent C; the Magnificat, surprisingly only for Third Sunday of Advent B; and this one from Daniel, used for Trinity Sunday A and also for the extended version of the Pentecost Vigil.  I am sorry that we won’t get to use it this year if all our churches are still shut, because it is a wonderful expression of joy and confidence in extremely difficult circumstances!  Very appropriate, then;  maybe we should all just sing it to cheer ourselves up.

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