Singing Our Way from Ascension to Pentecost

Few events in the life of Christ are as underappreciated as the Ascension. We often become so concerned about how to picture it that we do not move on to consider its significance. In fact, trying too hard to imagine or depict the Ascension can result in images that reduce Jesus to a kind of person-shaped rocketship blasting off for points unknown. Nor is this a new problem. Numerous chapels dedicated to the Ascension in European cathedrals have sculpted ceiling designs that feature a pair of stone feet dangling out of a stone cloud. Such representations tend to stop us at the level of wondering “What did it look like?” and prevent us from continuing on to consider “What does it mean?”

Perhaps the simplest way to express the true importance of this event is to say that the Ascension completes the symmetry of the mystery of the Incarnation. In the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany we annually celebrate how wonderful it is that God chose to take on our humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

ASCENSION

What the Ascension invites us to consider is that the risen Christ, fully human and fully divine, has no less wonderfully conveyed our humanity into the reunited triune Godhead. As Christopher Wordsworth’s well-known Ascension hymn phrases it: “thou hast raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand.” The particularity of the Incarnation (i.e., that Jesus Christ was one individual) expands because of the Ascension to the unique universality that the second Person of the Trinity enjoys in a relationship to all humanity through the role of Intercessor. In many ways the Ascension, rather than being the removal of Christ from the human arena, is the completion and culmination of the reconciling purpose of the Incarnation.

Of course, such an understanding would not have been immediately obvious to those who experienced this event firsthand. Despite the affirmation that those who witnessed the Ascension on a hillside near Bethany “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52b-53), it seems quite likely that this positive report is really pious hindsight, colored by the subsequent events of Pentecost. While they could surely rejoice that Christ’s being taken into heaven was yet another sign of God’s special favor toward him (as it had been for Elijah and Enoch), the disciples and the community gathered around them must also have had many questions about what would happen now. When would they know the presence of the Comforter Jesus had promised? How would they know the Comforter had come?

These questions received their astounding answer with the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Using similes drawn from the most mysterious and potent natural forces in human experience, the report of this event describes this encounter with the power of God as being “like the rush of a violent wind” that was accompanied by “divided tongues, as of fire” (Acts 2:2-3). These were, in fact, the joyful birth pangs of the New Testament Church, the new embodiment of God’s redemptive purpose for humankind. Thus began a new mystery, one in which we continue to participate.

The hymns on these pages are offered as a means of making present these mighty acts of God that we commemorate in the last ten days of the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

Christ, Enthroned in Heavenly Splendor

Click to listen [ full | alternate choral version ]

Words

This text by George Hugh Bourne, a nineteenth-century Anglican clergyman, first appeared in his Seven Post-Communion Hymns (1874), privately printed for St. Edmund’s College in Salisbury, England, where he was warden. It began to receive wider circulation after 1889, when five of the original ten stanzas appeared in the Supplement to the 1875 edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern. The selection of stanzas printed here uses three of those five plus two others.

This text has been newly edited for this issue of Reformed Worship and differs from previous versions in several respects, beginning with the opening line. Most other printings follow the original wording, “Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendor”; but this version follows the lead of the New Century Hymnal in altering the initial word to “Christ,” making clear from the beginning that the hymn is addressed to the second Person of the Trinity rather than the first Person. The archaic style (thee/thou) of the original text has been gently modernized.

BETWEEN ASCENSION AND PENTECOST

Much of the richness of this hymn derives from its scriptural allusions. The first stanza includes a reference to Revelation 1:5, and the final stanza one to Revelation 5:12. Other references include the following:

  • stanza 1: John 6:35
  • stanza 2: 1 Corinthians 5:7
  • stanza 3: Acts 3:15; Isaiah 9:6; Colossians 1:20
  • stanza 4: Hebrews 4:14; 6:19-20; 7:25-26
  • stanza 5: John 6:58; 1 Corinthians 10:4; John 19:34

Music

The 1889 publication of this hymn in the Supplement to Hymns Ancient & Modern set Bourne’s text to the tune st. helen by George C. Martin, which remains popular in the United Kingdom but has rarely been picked up by North American hymnals (see Rejoice in the Lord 537). Canadian hymnals generally use Healey Willan’s ST. OSMUND.

The English Hymnal (1906) yoked the text with bryn calfaria, which has proved to be its most popular tune in the United States. This Welsh tune, which the hymnologist Erik Routley called “a real piece of Celtic rock,” first appeared in the second volume of William Owen’s Y Perl Cerddorol (The Musical Pearl) in 1852. Tradition has it that the tune came to the composer as he was on his way to work in the quarry, and that he paused to write it down on a discarded piece of slate from the rubbish heap. The tune’s name means “Mount Calvary” in Welsh, reflecting that it was written for the famous Welsh hymn “Gwaed y Groes” (The Blood of the Cross). If one listens carefully to the first two-thirds of the tune, it is possible to hear in the repeated short-short-long-long pattern the sound of a staggering Christ dragging his cross up this fatal hill. That same rhythm is used in the rising Alleluias that then cascade rapidly downward before rising again for a confident ending. In performance it is essential to keep the rhythm steady, so that the two quarter notes in each four-note pattern receive full value and that the eighth notes in the first singing of the closing phrase are not rushed.

PENTECOST

Copyright

Both words and music are in the public domain and may be used without fee or permission.

What Praise Emerged from Waiting Lips

Click to listen [ full ]

Words

This text reflects an effort to consider what the experience of the disciples and the fledgling Christian community might have been like after the Ascension but before Pentecost. It begins with attention to Luke’s report that “they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:53). The second stanza continues by considering our present-day patterns of faith and worship, which in practice can often show little if any awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and gifts. The final stanza becomes an invocation of the Spirit, couched in the traditional symbols of fire and wind (“heaven’s breath”), described in Acts 2:2-3. At the same time it is an affirmation that what we say and sing shapes our faith and our witness in the world.

This text works best as the final hymn on the Sunday after the Ascension, because it both recalls Ascension and anticipates Pentecost.

Music

Although this CMD text will work with many tunes, the narrative, ballad-like qualities of kingsfold make that tune especially suitable. Its name recalls the village in northwest Sussex where Ralph Vaughan Williams heard this English folk song melody. He arranged it for use with “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” in The English Hymnal (1906), and from that point it has gone on to be used with many texts. It can be sung effectively in either unison or harmony. With this text, the organ registration for the first two stanzas should be somewhat subdued, reserving a fuller sound for the final stanza.

Copyright

Holders of CCLI, LicenSing, and OneLicense.net licenses may use this text without additional fee and should report its use along with other Hope Publishing Co. copyrights. Others may seek permission online at www.hopepublishing.com or by phoning 800-323-1049. The music is now in the public domain and does not require permission.

Wind Who Makes All Winds That Blow

Click to listen [ full | alternate version ]

Words

This vivid Pentecost text by Thomas H. Troeger, now dean of academic affairs and professor of preaching and communication at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, was written in 1983 for Father Sebastian Falcone of St. Bernard’s Institute in Rochester, New York, for use at a mass celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was first published that same year in The Christian Ministry (May 1983). Structurally, the first half of stanzas 1 and 2 addresses the Spirit by exploring the significance of the wind and fire images from the account of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4. The second half of those stanzas is a petition to the Holy Spirit for a gift related to the imagery in the first half. The momentum that has built up in the petition of the second stanza spills over into the third stanza, subverting the pattern, so that only the first phrase is address, and the remainder of the stanza becomes a series of intensifying petitions beginning with strong verbs (move, make, kindle, breathe, and blow). As the commentary in the Leader’s Edition of Sing! A New Creation indicates, Troeger’s intention in this text was to “help renew our sense of the primal origins of the sense of Spirit which the ancient Hebrews and Native Americans knew through wind and fire.”

Music

Now professor of music and liturgy as well as seminary organist at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, composer Carol Doran and the text’s author were colleagues at Colgate Rochester Divinity School/Bexley Hall/Crozer Theological Seminary when this hymn was published in their collaborative work New Hymns for the Lectionary: To Glorify the Maker’s Name (1986). In the Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (1993), editor Carlton Young praises falcone as a tune that “exemplifies how to compose a hymn tune to complement the text’s general statement or feeling rather than just an impressive opening line or thought.” He continues, “This setting begins with eight measures of not-so-simple melody riding uneasily over shifting harmonies. At measure 9 the reiterated B in the melody supported by steadier harmony prepares the singer for the scale-wise ending for each stanza. The result is a perfect setting for an outstanding text.” The version of the tune in four-part harmony printed here with the text was created by the composer in 1988 at the request of the committee preparing the Brethren/Mennonite Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992) and in deference to the strong part-singing traditions in those denominations. The original harmonization is also printed here with the hope that it might be used to accompany the unison singing of the second stanza. An especially effective blending of the two harmonizations (for either congregational or choir use) can be achieved by using the four-part version for the unison singing of stanza 1, the original harmonization for singing stanza 2 in unison, and the four-part version sung in parts for the final stanza. Although some people might be tempted to use this text with the more familiar tune aberystwyth (Presbyterian Hymnal 131; Sing! A New Creation 169), this original, text-specific setting imparts energy and immediacy to the hymn in a way that an omnibus tune cannot.

Carl P. Daw, Jr. (hymnsoc@bu.edu) is executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and is one of the most respected hymn text writers in North America; his texts are found in most current hymnals. Before his current appointment he served as a parsih priest, professor of English, and university chaplain. His latest published collection of hymns is New Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Hope).