The bittersweetness of the Ascension

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.

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).

The message

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 palm 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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The Lord is my shepherd : why so many versions

Psalm 22/23 : lots of different shepherds

We’ve just had Psalm 22/23, aka The Lord is my shepherd, as a Sunday psalm. It comes up quite a lot, and whenever it does, I sort through all the versions and occasionally get the chance and the time to write a new one, but there are several versions already, and I was thinking about why.

Different words

The first reason is that each country group has its own version of the words.  The Bishops’ Conference in each country group has jurisdiction over its own lectionary, and they do change the words quite a lot, especially when it’s a particularly frequent or loved psalm, and 22/23 is both.  And it’s surprising how even quite a small change in the words can make a big change to the music.  My aim always is to get as close to the spoken emphasis as possible, so the stress pattern is crucial: ‘I shall not want’ compared to ‘I’ll not want’, and even more so ‘there is nothing I shall want’. OZ and the UK and Ireland, and CAN  have the same verse words (not always, but usually), but different Responses; and if the Response falls into 3/4 while the verse is in 4/4, obviously you have to change the whole thing.

Different verse length and shape

The psalm itself is irregular, with two verses of six lines and two of four.  We have less tolerance of this in our verse rules than in Hebrew prosody, so we tend to regularise it; sometimes down to five verses of four lines each (this is what happens in the hymn versions, and in the Scottish metrical psalms), but obviously that means you have to move things around.  Sometimes the words in the Missal have been sorted into verses of the same length, sometimes not; sometimes I can extend a line by adding in quavers, sometimes not.  Sometimes the Missal version just leaves a bit out.  The CAN All Souls version of The Lord is my shepherd leaves out the lines about the dark valley, but I would have thought that for that feast and for funerals, that’s one of the elements that you would really want to have in!

So many beautiful versions already

Because of its simplicity and the power of the image, it’s a psalm that seems to invite people to try to make it their own, and I have a book of nothing but versions of the words, some successful, some less so (although you never know what will suddenly strike you as what you need to hear).  My book of musical versions, on the other hand, is only in my head, ranging from the Crimond and Br James’ Air that we sang at school, to the Gelineau and the Schubert with lots in between. I don’t have the luxury of being able to repeat words (listen to some of the old Mass versions some time and imagine what they would be like if Mozart or Byrd had been limited to a straight run, as church musicians now are), but what I have to set is a group of lines of (very) varying length in a way that the congregation will feel comfortable with, sing along to, and not feel takes too long. There’s a beautiful set of tunes for the Psalms by Tallis,  but his approach is like the Scottish metrical psalms, and the words are not repeated but seriously paraphrased.

A good ‘first’ psalm

This must be one of the first psalms that anyone learns.  Like The Magic Flute for Mozart and Midsummer Night’s Dream for Shakespeare, it’s immediately accessible and enjoyable at  a very young age, and from there, you can go on to understand more and more (I’m trying to avoid the expression ‘gateway drug’, but that’s the idea).

The shepherd image for Jesus

The fascinating thought for me is that when Jesus first learned it, as a little Jewish boy, he would of course have had the mental image of God as the shepherd, whereas we Christians, programmed by so many pictures and storybooks, never imagine the shepherd as God, but always Jesus himself.  And when he says to the disciples, ‘I am the good shepherd,’  he is making a very specific claim.  When we sing ‘the Lord is a warrior, the Lord is his name’, we mean God the Father; but ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ means, for us, only Christ.  I think this is why we need the incarnation: it is so much easier to imagine Jesus as the person with the smell of sheep about him.  I have to make a real effort to think of God that way, but for Jesus (who after all knows him far better than we do) and for the psalmist (in this case we are fairly sure that it’s David), it is entirely natural.  In the dark valley, or anywhere else, that is a comforting thought.

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