Julian Browning prepares for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord
From the Diary of the Reverend Francis Kilvert: ‘Holy Thursday, 26 May . The bells ringing for the Ascension. Went to Church with my Father through the sunny golden fields variegated with clover and daisies and ground ivy. The Church bell tolling for service through the elms. A small congregation, but many bees about the Church windows as if a swarm were flying. My Father says this has happened on several Ascension days and once the Churchwarden John Bryant came after a swarm of his to the Church on Ascension Day, clinking a frying pan and shovel. My father told him that the bees showed the people the way to Church.’
The clergy say the oddest things. Do the bees show us the way to church on Ascension Day? As with much religious argument and fanciful speculation, from deep among images filtered through half-remembered sermons and random reading, an element of truth emerges. Bees are of ancient lineage in folklore and mythology. Bees appear in the art found on Palaeolithic rocks. Bees make music. Bees bring order and wisdom to their temple hives. In Egyptian, Greek and Celtic fables, bees are symbols of the soul. The bees know more than we do. It seems as natural to me as it did to Francis Kilvert’s father, the Reverend Robert Kilvert, Rector of Langley Burrell in Wiltshire, that the bees should bring to our notice the great and ancient Feast of the Ascension. For if Resurrection means anything at all, it is about the inter-connectedness of all things, the heightened awareness we know only in the Kingdom of Heaven, no separation now between God and mankind, nor between each of us and the other, nor between ourselves and the natural world.
The strangest people come to church on Ascension Day. John Bryant came to church with a frying pan and a shovel because in country wisdom it was known that the clinking noise of the two implements would have a calming influence over his bees. Today we employ an organist to improvise slow melodies to have a calming effect before the service over the murmuring and buzzing congregation. On Ascension Day we welcome Christians who know why they have come to church. There will be former choirboys who sang from strange skyward locations like the Chapel Tower of St. John’s College, Cambridge, each Ascension Day. There will be those who must sing ‘The head that once was crowned with thorns’ for their Easter to be complete. There will be a row of younger Anglo-Catholics (or spikes as we used to be called), recognizable by their expressions of pleasurable outrage, as, once again, the Paschal Candle is not extinguished at the end of the gospel, as demanded in Ritual Notes, but permitted to linger through to Pentecost. There will be Roman Catholics who refuse to be transferred to the following Sunday like a postponed Amazon delivery. Ascension Day is not to be missed.
Ascension Day is a Thursday. It is always a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter, a day of rejoicing and triumph to mark the close of the Lord’s earthly pilgrimage. He goes to prepare a place for us. ‘The Apostles returned to Jerusalem with great joy.’ [Luke 24.52] It could be that the modern emphasis on Pentecost as the Feast which brings closure to the Easter season has done the Ascension few favours. To put it crudely, we are back on earth with one another far too soon, unless we enter the mystery of the Ascension. The Ascension is not a geographical disappearance, but ‘Christ’s return to the heart of all creation where he dwells now in his glorified humanity. The mystery of his Presence is hidden throughout creation and in every part of it’, as Thomas Keating wrote in The Mystery of Christ (1987). Christ is now ‘the light that enlightens everyone’ (John 1.9). We can begin to find the courage to look beyond our fine words, to see the reality of darkness and light in the contemporary world, to see the despair as well as the joy, to hope, pray and work for the end of inexplicable suffering, because, through the grace of the Ascension, everything is transformed into Christ. ‘Christ is all and in all’ (Col. 3.11) right now. At the Ascension we remember that Christ goes to heaven, not as an idealized god-like creature, but as he is, wounds and all. That is the Christ we recognize in the world we see, in a transformation of our consciousness completed by the Spirit at Pentecost.
The monastic spirituality of the Middle Ages provides sharp insights which help us to celebrate this Feast. For St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the reformer of the Cistercian Order, Ascension Day is ‘the crowning glory of all the other feasts, communicating their fruit and increasing their grace’. The Ascension is important for what it does for you and me. We pass (Latin, transire) from death to life through hope in the Resurrection. But there’s way to go. To share in the glory of Christ, to pass beyond (Latin, pertransire), to seek the things that are above, we need to develop a lively faith in the Ascension. Ascension is a word for every day, and for every situation we face: ‘The way of ascension, Christ himself demonstrated to us… He himself is the way by which we ascend, just as he is the homeland for those who have arrived.’ What makes me follow the bees to church to celebrate the Ascension and to sing those hymns? It is the certainty of it all, the certainty of the triumph of the Lord. There’s no going back. Return with me to Kilvert’s Victorian times. Anthony Trollope, Kilvert’s older contemporary, brings before us (in his novel The Warden) the Reverend Septimus Harding, a good clergyman in Barchester, who writes anthems and conducts the cathedral choir. Septimus Harding tells his friends that one ‘reason that I make music is to celebrate the certainty of the Lord, since there is no other way I can understand the contradictions and confusions that surround me’.
Amid today’s confusions, we note, with a sigh, Francis Kilvert’s observation, ‘a small congregation’. We know that drill: not as many as last year, of course people work late, the weather, the trains, could it be half-term again? Maybe weekday religious observance of a traditional kind is in a decline we can no longer prevent. That’s a subject for another time. But since when did the celebration of truth have anything to do with numbers? This is Ascension Day we’re talking about. Take the day off, read a bit, look up at the sky, throw a party, and find a church open on 25 May which, as every bee knows, is a Thursday.
Julian Browning is Hon. Assistant Priest at All Saints, Margaret Street