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Anthems for the Feast of the Ascension

By Professor Morwenna Ludlow,
Canon Theologian

On Thursday morning I stood with a group of others gazing up at the North Tower of Exeter Cathedral. Suddenly through the slightly hazy air came the sound of choral singing: anthems for the feast of the Ascension. Even though that was, of course, what we had been expecting, it was still a moment of unexpected beauty, the clear voices drifting down to us below. And it was amusing to watch others crossing the Cathedral Green. For many people this is their usual route to work or school. They followed their usual routes, sleepy early morning feet following the paths of habit, and then they noticed that people were standing in their way, looking up and watching – well, watching what? Because throughout the service of morning prayer for Ascension there was nothing that I could see beyond the Cathedral itself. I could merely hear those beautiful voices. And as the voices broke through, I hope that some of those walking across the Green stopped to listen too, surprised by music on their morning walk to work.

For me, the message of Ascension is precisely that Jesus is with us, even though we no longer see him. He is with us in the sacraments, in our prayer and worship, in our day-to-day love of neighbour – and in other ways we are yet to understand. The mid twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner said that when Jesus ascended to the Father, he did not leave the world; rather, he was able to become present with the whole world – not just his followers in first century Palestine.

So, when we send small children up a Norman tower to sing ascension carols, we are not thinking that somehow we are sending them to be closer to Jesus. Rather, that experience of unseen voices from above that captures one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith. Jesus’ presence with us is real, even though it is something we can neither see, nor feel.