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
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.

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). 

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

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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 (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).

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 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.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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