Ascension Day Sung Eucharist

1 May 2008 at :00 am

Acts 1: 1-11; Ephesians 1: 15-end; Luke 24: 44-end

The past forty years have been a time of unprecedented liturgical change in the Anglican Communion. The first big period of change was at the Reformation but was short and sharp, beginning with the first Prayer Book of King Edward VI in 1549 and culminating in the publication of Elizabeth I’s prayer book in 1559 – only ten years, and they were interrupted by the return under Mary Tudor to the earlier use. The Book of Common Prayer in 1662 was merely a revival of the Elizabethan book of 1559.

Nothing then happened to the form of service – the rite or liturgy – in the Church of England until 81 years ago. Then, in 1927, after some years of preparation, a modestly modified version of the Book of Common Prayer was offered to Parliament for its approval. Parliament rejected it. It was offered again in 1928. Again Parliament rejected it. Church opinion was scandalised. Parliament, it was said, was full of dissenters and others who didn’t care tuppence for the Church of England. The Church must be free of Parliament. The book was published and is still in print as ‘The Prayer Book as proposed in 1928’. It became quite widely used, but without lawful authority, with some ill effects.

It was only after the war, in the mid 1960s, that the matter was addressed again, with the legalisation of the changes that would have been made in 1928, and only in 1974 that the Church achieved complete freedom from Parliament to authorise its own liturgy. By then liturgical reform was well under way. Much of it was influenced by the changes made in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. Whilst their changes continue, with the recent re-authorisation of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, and with new translations of Paul VI’s 1970 liturgy about to come into force, the current round of changes in the Church of England has more or less come to an end, though I doubt whether the new liturgies will last for 400 years.

A significant change to the place of today’s feast was made by the Roman Catholic Church in 1970 and paralleled later in the Church of England. Until that change, Eastertide used to finish with the feast of the Ascension, which then had its own nine days of celebration ending with Whitsunday, or as it became known, the feast of Pentecost. After the change, and still today, Eastertide continues until Pentecost itself. Before the change, the paschal candle was extinguished after the reading of the Gospel on Ascension Day. After the change, as today, the paschal candle remains alight, bravely burning, to remind us of the resurrection of our Lord from the dead. It will remain here by the pulpit until Whitsunday.

What if anything does this change mean for today’s feast? I want to suggest that it marks a significant change of focus. Eastertide continues. We celebrate the resurrection of the Lord. We still concentrate on the truth that in him death has been conquered, new life won. Extending the feast of the Ascension into an Ascensiontide season, as was the old practice, ran the risk of focussing too heavily and for too long on Christ’s departure, his withdrawal to heavenly realms, his absence from this world, symbolised by the extinguishing of the paschal candle, and incidentally rendered iconic through the familiar but deceptive imagery of Jesus hitching a passing cloud, as in the beautiful original of the cover for today’s order of service and in the Abbey’s posters for this feast, in which only the feet of the ascending Jesus can be seen dangling from the cloud.

It is true that today we remark Jesus Christ’s last resurrection appearance to the disciples but this creates in us no sense of loss. It marks instead a transition from the period when our risen Lord appeared in one place at a time to an eternity in which he is ever present. Now our spirits begin to contemplate the means whereby the risen Christ’s eternal presence can be sensed by us. We are strengthened by Jesus’ final words, the last words of St Matthew’s Gospel, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And Jesus’ words to his disciples in St John’s Gospel echo in our ears, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ has not passed beyond our ken. He is fully and wholly present to us, in the life of the Church which is His Body, in the scriptures which are his Holy Word, through the Holy Spirit of God, informing and warming and moulding us into his likeness. Above all, Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, the second person of the Holy Trinity, is really and actually present to us in the sacrament of the holy Eucharist. In the consecrated bread and wine, His Body is broken for us, His Blood poured out for us, the very life of Jesus Christ himself floods into us, fills us with his life-giving presence.

The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist focuses for us here on earth the continuing and loving presence of our risen and life-giving Saviour. It also unites heaven and earth, giving us a glimpse and a foretaste of heaven and the heavenly banquet. In the 13th century, around the time this Abbey Church was built, the angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, whose theology has been so influential in the Church, wrote his great Eucharistic hymns.

“Thee we adore, O hidden Saviour, Thee,
Who in Thy sacrament dost deign to be;
Both flesh and spirit at Thy presence fail,
Yet here Thy presence we devoutly hail.

“O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see,
May what we thirst for soon our portion be,
To gaze on Thee unveiled, and see Thy face,
The vision of Thy glory and Thy grace.”

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