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Ascension: Orthodox theology in Western hymns?

16 May 2018

On the Eve of the Feast of the Ascension of Christ, and within the Octave of the Ascension in the West (if they still have such things as Octaves) I think about the meaning of the feast.

One of the worst sermons I ever heard was was about 52 years ago, in St Leonard’s Church, Streatham, South London. The preacher compared Christ to a heavenly lift mechanic, who had come down the lift shaft to repair the lift, which was broken, and having completed the repair, returned again to the top of the shaft.

But there is surely more to it than that.

Then, and on other occasions, I got the impression that the Church of England was a bit embarrassed about Ascension day, and didn’t know quite what to make of it, but the ascension of Christ was mentioned in the creed, so one had to say something, however banal and unconvincing it might sound.

In South Africa Ascension Day used to be a public holiday, though it is no longer. I think that was largely due to the Dutch Reformed Church, which in the 19th century had experienced a kind of Pentecostal revival led by Andrew Murray in the church at Wellington. The time between Ascension and Pentecost became a time of special devotion, with more services, focusing on the expectation of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. It was their equivalent of Lent, and they seemed to regard Ascension day as more important than Christmas.

When I was at a Methodist Church school our Afrikaans teacher (who was quite devout and had completed the concordance to the Afrikaans Bible that has been started by his father) was quite disgusted that Ascension Day was just kept as an ordinary school day, and that he had to come and teach on that day.

The expectation of the descent of the Holy Spirit certainly features in the Orthodox understanding too, as we can see from the Troparion of the feast:

Thou didst ascend in glory, O Christ our God,
granting joy to Thy Disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit.
Through the blessing, they were assured
that Thou art the Son of God,
the Redeemer of the world.

But there is still more to it than that.

One of the hymns for Vespers says:

The nature of Adam,
which had descended to the nethermost parts of the earth,
Thou didst renew in Thyself, O God,
and today Thou didst take it up above every Principality and Pow’r,
for loving it, Thou didst seat it with Thyself;
and having compassion on it, Thou didst unite it with Thyself;
and united with it, Thou didst suffer with it;
and Thou Who art passionless hast glorified it with Thyself.
But the Bodiless Powers were asking:
“Who is this Man of beauty?
Not man only, but both God and man,
the two natures together made manifest.”
And so exultant Angels, flying about the Disciples in shining robes,
cried out: “Ye Men of Galilee,
He Who is gone from you,
this Jesus, both Man and God,
will come again as God and Man, the Judge of living and the dead,//
granting the faithful forgiveness of sins and His great mercy!”

Is there anything in in any Western hymns to compare with that?

I believe there is.

Though many Western Ascension-Day hymns witter on about vegetation and the changing seasons, there are a few that have some theological content. This verse from one of them, by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, illustrates this:

Thou hast raised our human nature
On 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.

I think that is a pretty good summary. In fact it describes what happens at the Divine Liturgy. I would be quite happy to use that to teach Orthodox people about the Ascension of Christ. You can see the whole thing here.

Are there any more Western Ascension hymns that express something of Orthodox theology?

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