It’s Ascension Day. In my church primary school, this exceptional day was a holiday. We would troop off to the parish church for the Ascension Day service, and then we were free. That sense of freedom was a delight. But I doubt many of us had much of a grasp of the reason for our celebration. We knew the story – that Ascension Day celebrated Jesus’ departure from his disciples, his Ascension into heaven – but had little understanding of its meaning.
Seventy-odd years later, we may all be equally in the dark. In the 1960s we were taught that the old conception of a three-decker universe, in which heaven was up and the other place down, was no longer credible. Those Renaissance paintings of Jesus disappearing up into a cloud, only his feet remaining visible, had perhaps already made that point. Nowadays, the Ascension may be the least thought-about element in our Creed: we may simply repeat ‘He ascended into heaven’ without understanding.
So: what is today’s celebration about? Last evening we walked on the Forest, and the song of the skylark was everywhere. I recalled that wonderful romance for violin and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams, ‘The Lark Ascending’. It weaves the skylark’s ‘silver chain of sound’ into a piece which expresses an exaltation above the physical: aspiring, longing, spiritual. That musical magic might prompt us to attend to the profound poetry of the Ascension.