When the pandemic began, I shared a prayer booklet with my congregation that I called “Poems, Prayers, Psalms, and Promises.” For each day of the week I offered a devotional poem and a psalm, scripture reading, and prayer to accompany it. I have offered new devotional poems, with an accompanying psalm, scripture reading and prayer, each week throughout the Easter season. I plan to continue doing this for a few more weeks, and then offer a new prayer booklet to be used this summer following the same format.
This week’s poem, prayer, psalm, and promise all celebrate one of the great festivals in our church year, the Ascension of Our Lord. It is a great festival, but a mysterious one, too. What does it mean for us that Jesus ascended into heaven? This week’s poem, by the poet Malcolm Guite, offers a beautiful reflection on the meaning of this wonderfully mysterious festival. This poem can be found in a book that has quickly become one of my favorite books of poetry: “Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year.”
His poem “Ascension Day” helps us to ponder the paradox at the heart of this festival – that the ascension takes Jesus away from us, but at the same time makes it possible for him to be with us in a new way. I love how Martin Luther describes this mystery, in a sermon he preached on the ascension in 1523: “What good will it do you if you merely preach that he ascended up to heaven and sits there with folded hands? … For this purpose did he ascend up thither, that he might be down here, that he might fill all things and be everywhere present; which thing he could not do had he remained on earth.” The ascension, in other words, takes Jesus away from us, but only so that he can be present with us in a new way – filling all things and being everywhere present, in a way that he could not do had he remained on earth. Isn’t that an incredible thing to ponder? And with that, here is this week’s devotion:
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. In you, O God, I place my trust. Help me now to quiet myself and listen, that the thoughts and prayers of my heart might be pleasing to you. Amen
Opening Psalm: Psalm 47
Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm. God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.
Jesus said to [Mary Magdalene], “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” – John 20:17
It is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) – Ephesians 4:8-10
Devotional Poem: “Ascension Day” by Malcolm Guite
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory Whilst we were rooted still in time and place As earth became a part of heaven’s story And heaven opened to his human face. We saw him go and yet we were not parted He took us with him to the heart of things The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings, Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness, Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight, Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness And sing the waning darkness into light, His light in us, and ours in him concealed, Which all creation waits to see revealed.
O God, Most High, today we sing your praises, for your son has gone up with a shout, and is now seated at your right hand. We sing your praises for the one who now reigns with you over the nations, from his glorious throne in heaven. We celebrate and give thanks that Jesus ascended to you – not to leave us, but to be with us in a wondrous new way. But it is a way that can be seen only through faith, Lord, so help us to believe. Help us to trust that Jesus is now everywhere present. And help us to bear witnesses to this glorious gift – to become his clouds of witness, with his light shining through us, as we wait with all creation for his promised return. Amen