Ascension Songs: Looking Beyond Your Hymnal
In a phone conversation with my sister, I mentioned that I had led a session at a conference called “With a Shout! What Difference Does the Ascension Make for Everyday Life?” There was a long pause on the other end of the line, followed by a bewildered “Why would you spend a whole day talking about the ascension?”
My sister is not alone in seeing the ascension as a slightly baffling footnote to the story of the resurrection. The good news of the ascension is that the resurrection isn’t the final chapter in God’s story. Christ rose to God’s right hand in his wounded human flesh, where he continues to intercede for us as our ever-present high priest. This is heady and exciting stuff that can transform our understanding of worship, vocation, and sanctification.
As with any liturgical season or service theme, worship planners will want to find music that supports the theology. That doesn’t mean each song has to preach a sermon, but all the songs should illuminate the theme in some way. Certainly we should continue to use classic ascension songs such as “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise,” but perhaps some new repertoire would bring fresh perspective to our understanding of ascension theology, deepening our worship on Ascension Day and throughout the whole year.
The difficulty of choosing ascension music is that Ascension Sunday happens only once a year. It isn’t wise to introduce too many new songs in one service, especially if they can only be used one day each year. The songs that follow take this into account. Though most of them will be new to your congregation, the selections focus on new texts set to familiar tunes, songs that can be used all year long, and songs that can be introduced by a choir or cantor and then picked up easily by the congregation.
To learn more about worship and the ascension, read “Reclaiming the Promise of Ascension” (http://www.calvin.edu/worship/stories/ascension.php) and “The Incarnation Continues” (RW 79, pp. 4-5). For a more comprehensive list of ascension songs, visit www.calvin.edu/worship/leader/ascension.php.
God Has Gone Up with Shouts of Joy!
In this new text found in Sing! A New Creation 154, James Hart Brumm uses the words of Psalm 47 (the Ascension Day lectionary psalm) as a launching point for an exploration of Christ’s work. In fact, each of the three stanzas reflects the three answers of Heidelberg Catechism question 45: How does Christ’s ascension benefit us?
Using the familiar tune mit freuden zart (“Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above”) from Psalter Hymnal 465 allows the congregation to concentrate on the rich theology of the text. Brumm drives home the point that Christ ascended to heaven in his wounded flesh. Because Christ reigns eternally in human flesh, it gives us hope that we too may follow Christ to glory “with our pain and scars.” The text also emphasizes that Jesus knows and cares about the everyday details of our human existence. The author summarizes all of these ideas in the final words of each stanza: we are invited into “Love’s eternal blessing.”
James Hart Brumm was a member of the committee that prepared Sing! A New Creation. He is pastor of Blooming Grove Reformed Church and adjunct faculty at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. His collection of texts, Out of the Ordinary, is published by Wayne Leopold Editions.
A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing
This ascension text, penned by the Venerable Bede (673-735), isunusual in that it tells the whole ascension story. There is a powerthat builds over the seven stanzas as we are drawn into the story,preparing us for the narrative’s theological implications in stanza 5:
O grant our souls with yours to rise
with tireless wings unto the skies;
until our faith finds rest in you
and heav’n and earth are all made new.
—from Benjamin Webb’s 1854 translation,
adapted by Greg Scheer
In the Lutheran Book of Worshipthe text is paired with LASST UNS ERFREUEN (“All Creatures of Our Godand King”). This melody is familiar, but its high range and extended“alleluias”
may prove to be vocally tiring when all seven stanzas are sung. The Presbyterian Hymnalpairs three stanzas of the text with the tune DEO GRACIAS, a modal tuneoften associated with “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High” (Psalter Hymnal364). The tune’s rugged beauty holds up well with repeated use, makingit ideal for the lengthy text of “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing.” Infact, this same tune could be used throughout the liturgical year withother long meter (LM) texts, weaving each season’s stories togetherwith the same melody:
- Advent: “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry”
- Epiphany/Lent: “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High”
- Transfiguration: “O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair”
- Easter: “O Sons and Daughters”
- Ascension: “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing”
The arrangement shown here is sparse enough that it lets themedieval folk character of the tune shine through. The light percussionadds to the song’s rhythmic vitality and helps support the offbeatrhythm in the third measure of each phrase. One performance possibilitywould be for the choir to chant the first stanza, bring in percussionon the second, and slowly add voices and harmony each stanza to buildthe momentum of the song. Instruments—especially recorder or oboe—candouble the vocal lines, and in more contemporary churches guitar couldstrum the chords. This song makes a very effective processional hymn.
The First Place
“The First Place” is not in common currency in the praise andworship repertoire, but that may change with its recent appearance atJohn Piper’s Desiring God conference,“Above All Earthly Powers: The Supremacy of Christ in a PostmodernWorld.” The song is a brilliant recasting of Colossians 1:15-20,portraying Christ’s reign over heaven and earth and in our hearts.
After establishing the supremacy of Christ in the stanzas, therefrain bursts into the Kuyperian exclamation, “Every inch of thisuniverse belongs to you, O Christ.” The refrain concludes with personalapplication “So you must have in all things the first place”—that is,if Christ’s supremacy is displayed throughout all creation, certainlyhe should also reign in our lives.
The music complements the text perfectly, with simple chords and alow-range melody in the verses that are answered by the expanded rangeand energy of the refrain. The song is best accompanied by a praiseband, but can also effectively be led by just piano or guitar.
The song’s composer, Matthew Westerholm, is a graduate of TrinityInternational University. Westerholm has been on the worship ministrystaff at Harvest Bible Chapel in the northwest suburbs of Chicago since1998. He maintains a blog at http://retroevangelical.blogspot.com/.
More Songs for Your Ascension Repertoire
Clap Your Hands, All You Nations/Psalm 47 (John Bell, 1993 GIA from Psalms of Patience, Protest and Praise, also in Sing! A New Creation 156) A joyous song based on the lectionary psalm that presents a good opportunity for call and response between the choir/leader and congregation. (Read more about this song in “Songs for the Season,” RW 55.)
God Mounts His Throne (Marty Haugen; Gather Comprehensive, 36) A modern Catholic setting of Psalm 47. The simple folk style is a non-intimidating way to introduce responsorial psalmody and cantoring to your congregation.
He Is King of Kings (Lead Me, Guide Me 86) A well-loved spiritual on the theme of Christ’s reign. For more authentic performance practice, use call and response between leader and congregation. An adventurous song leader could even improvise additional stanzas on ascension themes.
Jesús, Es Mi Rey Soberano/Our King and Our Sovereign, Lord Jesus (Presbyterian Hymnal 157; United Methodist Hymnal, 180) A simple song of praise from Mexico that is best accompanied by guitar. The melody is a little tricky at first, but a joy to sing once you learn it. Try singing just the last line in Spanish (“Y yo soy feliz, y yo soy feliz por él”).
Let His Name Be Lifted Up (© 1993 Greg Scheer, www.gregscheer.com) A simple song that expresses the “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” theme that is part of the arc of the ascension story.
O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright (public domain) The text ties together the sun with the Son very effectively, illuminating the theme of Christ over all creation. A new arrangement can be found at the CICW website (www.calvin.edu/worship/).
Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart (Presbyterian Hymnal 146) For a change of pace, use the tune VINEYARD HAVEN with this common ascension text. You may know the tune from “Lift Up Your Heads, O Gates” (Psalter Hymnal 163).
Salvation Belongs to Our God (Adrian Howard and Pat Turner, © 1985 Restoration Music Ltd. admin. Sovereign Music UK) An underutilized praise song that reflects the grandeur of Revelation 4 and 5 well.
The Most Excellency Is Jesus (© 1995 Geoff Weaver/Jubilate Hymns; World Praise 2, 95) A vibrant song from Nigeria that is great fun to sing. It lifts up the unsurpassed greatness of Jesus in a simple, rhythmic language.
The Savior Leaves (© 1988 The Iona Community/GIA; Enemy of Apathy, p. 86) An insightful text, as one would expect from John Bell. We often think of Christ ascending “with a shout,” but Bell paints a different picture when he says “As strangely silent as he came, the Savior leaves.” The tune’s ascending fourths are not typical Bell, but very interesting nonetheless. It may make a better solo piece than congregational song.
Throw Down Your Crowns (© 1997 Glenn Kaiser/Garr Music) A solid, singable praise song that emphasizes our surrender to Christ in light of his worthiness. It may surprise you to find out that a song this pretty comes from the leader of Rez Band, a Christian hard rock group that was popular in the early days of CCM.