Ascension Day


 Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, nephew of the Lakeland poet and one of our great Anglican hymn writers,  was through and through a biblical  theologian. True theology is prayer; and prayer and worship are gifts of the Holy Spirit, given through the Ascended Christ, that we may be formed in holiness and so obey Christ’s great command to proclaim the Gospel to the world. Bishop Wordsworth  once wrote :, “It is the first duty of a hymn to teach sound doctrine and thence to save souls.”

Sadly the editors of modern hymnals think  that congregations should  only sing theologically undemanding hymns. Even the English Hymnal now provides only a bowdlerised  version of Wordsworth’s great theology of the Ascension.  Gone, are most of the Old Testament references – allusions which we are intended by the Gospel writers to notice, to reflect on, to pray and so be graced to grow in holiness, reverence and awe.

Here is one  of Wordsworth’s original verses:

Now our heavenly Aaron enters, with His blood, within the veil;
Joshua now is come to Canaan, and the kings before Him quail;
Now He plants the tribes of Israel in their promised resting place;
Now our great Elijah offers double portion of His grace.

The Feast of the Ascension contains within it the great theological insight that the whole of the Old Testament is a human foreshadowing of our  eternal salvation worked in Christ for all people, all times, all places. As we worship our ascended Lord so we enter into the heaven of heavens and from that vantage point can look forward to the renewal of the universe in the coming Kingdom, look back to the historical acts of God in his people and in his Christ, look within to discover Christ at work in us forming  us in  holiness and look up to the eternal altar of heaven where Christ offers himself once for all and eternally .

So Bishop Wordsworth  sets out  the Ascension faith and hope:

Thou hast  raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places, there with thee in glory stand:
Jesus reigns, adored by angels; man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension we by faith behold our own.

From all eternity God knows that humanity will choose to fall away from God. From all eternity Christ, in whom all things cohere, comes  to be one of us, a human being in flesh, time and thought. Why? So that in flesh God may be glorified. So that the barriers between us and God – barriers erected by our sin – may be broken down . As one of the early Christian thinkers puts it: “Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is.”

Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension we by faith behold our own.

As Christ, in his crucified and eternally scarred risen humanity, ascends to the eternal glory of  God the Holy Trinity so our humanity is lifted into God. Christ’s Easter Victory over evil and death  is shared corporally and spiritually with us through the Eucharist in which Christ our High Priest gives himself to us in bread and wine.

Christ feeds us that we may grow in holiness and witness day by day, hour by hour to  Christ’s saving work and glory.  Christ at the Last Supper consecrates himself, so that through his offering upon the Cross all  may be made new.

Bishop Wordsworth’s hymn speaks of this in another  now omitted verse:

See Him, who is gone before us, heavenly mansions to prepare,
See Him, who is ever pleading for us with prevailing prayer,
See Him, who with sound of trumpet, and with His angelic train,
Summoning the world to judgment, on the clouds will come again.

Christ our ascended High Priest ever prays for his world; Christ ever prays for  us his Church, his holy people that we may faithfully ,diligently  witness, praise, serve, love and  pray “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Our intercession, our prayer, however simple,  is through Christ who, both holds us in his eternal prayer and receives our prayers so that a fractured  cosmos may be made whole. So Wesley’s  great Ascensiontide hymn rejoices:

Lo! the heaven its Lord receives,
yet he loves the earth he leaves;
Still for us he intercedes,
his prevailing death he pleads.

Our lord’s Ascension points forward to Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit. That gift enables our holiness – and  calls us to be witnesses, if needs be martyrs, offering all to Christ as Christ offers all to us. Wordsworth’s hymn points us forward again in Holy Scripture:

Holy Ghost, llluminator, shed Thy beams upon our eyes,
Help us to look up with Stephen, - Stephen the first martyr -  and to see beyond the skies,
Where the Son of Man in glory standing is at God’s right hand,
Beckoning on His martyr army, succouring His faithful band.

The Ascension bids us both look up – in praise and  in worship – and also to look outwards as we witness to the truth of Christ who is the Way, Truth and Life for all.

‘Why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ Christ  will come as glorious Lord in love and judgement. So Wordsworth’s hymn ends, as all prayer, theology and Christian community,  must end in awe-struck praise:

Glory be to God the Father, glory be to God the Son,
Dying, risen, ascending for us, who the heavenly realm has won;
Glory to the Holy Spirit, to one God in persons Three;
Glory both in earth and Heaven, glory, endless glory, be.Amen.




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