Our opening hymn is one of the most popular Ascension hymns in the English language: Charles Wesley’s “Hail the day that sees him rise.” Wesley’s original poem (first published in 1739) contained ten stanzas (we sing four of these). The hymn affirms Christ’s kingly rule (he is seated at the right hand of the Father to rule, not to relax), his continued full humanity (his human hands still bear the scars of his crucifixion), and our destiny to behold him face to face.
Wesley’s grasp of all that is conveyed in the reality of the Ascension is so rich, I’ve copied all ten stanzas here:
Hail the day that sees him rise,
Ravish’d from our wishful eyes;
Christ awhile to mortals giv’n,
Re-ascends his native heav’n!
There the pompous triumph waits,
“Lift your heads, eternal gates,
Wide unfold the radiant scene,
Take the King of Glory in!”
Circled round with angel powers,
Their triumphant Lord, and ours,
Conqueror over death and sin,
Take the King of Glory in!
Him tho’ highest heaven receives,
Still he loves the earth he leaves;
Tho’ returning to his throne,
Still he calls mankind his own.
See! He lifts his hands above!
See! He shews the prints of love!
Hark! His gracious lips bestow
Blessings on his church below!
Still for us his death he pleads;
Prevalent, he intercedes;
Near himself prepares our place,
Harbinger of human race.
Master, (will we ever say)
Taken from our head to-day;
See thy faithful servants, see!
Ever gazing up to thee.
Grant, tho’ parted from our sight,
High above yon azure height,
Grant our hearts may thither rise,
Following thee beyond the skies.
Ever upward let us move,
Wafted on the wings of love,
Looking when our Lord shall come,
Longing, gasping after home.
There we shall with thee remain,
Partners of thy endless reign,
There thy face unclouded see,
Find our heav’n of heav’ns in thee!
This recording by the St. Michael’s Singers includes a few additional stanzas that aren’t in our Hymnal:
Our Sermon Hymn today — “Rejoice, the Lord is King” — is also by Charles Wesley, and it focuses our attention on the joy occasioned by the fact of Christ’s heavenly rule as King. It echoes the sentiment found in many Psalms that God’s just rule is a source of comfort and confidence. Since this hymn is relatively unfamiliar, below is Andrew Remillard’s rendition of this hymn on piano.
The Offertory Anthem is a setting of Psalm 47, the psalm from which the Proper is taken: “God is gone up with a merry noise: and the Lord with the sound of the trump, alleluia.” The Anglican Chant setting sung by the choir is by John Davy (1763-1824), who served as organist at Exeter Cathedral, but was best known in his time for his composition of works for the stage.
The Communion motet is a hymn “Completed, Lord, the holy mysteries.” It is a paraphrase by Cyril Edward (1906-1980) of texts taken from the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. Although the author of the hymn did not indicate exactly which part of the Liturgy he paraphrased, here is one of the prayers that may have been the source:
Lord, our God, You created us and brought us into this life. You have shown us the way to salvation and have bestowed upon us the revelation of heavenly mysteries. You have appointed us to this service by the power of Your Holy Spirit. Grant, therefore, O Lord that we may be accepted as servants of Your new Covenant and ministers of Your holy mysteries. Accept us as we draw near to Your holy altar, according to the multitude of Your mercy, that we may be worthy to offer You this spiritual sacrifice without the shedding of blood, for our sins and for the transgressions of Your people. Grant that, having accepted this sacrifice upon Your holy, heavenly, and spiritual altar as an offering of spiritual fragrance, You may in return send down upon us the grace of Your Holy Spirit. Look upon us, O God, and consider our worship; and accept it as You accepted the gifts of Abel, the sacrifices of Noah, the burnt offerings of Abraham, the priestly offices of Moses and Aaron, and the peace offerings of Samuel. As You accepted this true worship from Your holy apostles, accept also in Your goodness, O Lord, these gifts from the hands of us sinners, that being deemed worthy to serve at Your holy altar without blame., we may obtain the reward of the faithful stewards on the fearful day of Your just judgment.
The music for the Communion Motet was written by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).
The closing hymn — “See, the Conqu’ror mounts in triumph” — is another powerful Ascensiontide text, this one written by Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885), nephew of William Wordsworth, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, bishop of London, and accomplished poet. Here are some of the stanzas in Wordsworth’s original but not included in our Hymnal:
Holy Ghost, Illuminator, shed thy beams upon our eyes,
Help us to look up with Stephen, and to see beyond the skies,
Where the Son of Man in glory standing is at God’s right hand,
Beckoning on his martyr army, succouring his faithful band.
See him, who is gone before us, heavenly mansions to prepare,
See him, who is ever pleading for us with prevailing prayer;
See him, who with sound of trumpet and with his angelic train
Summoning the world to judgment on the clouds will come again.
Lift us up from earth to heaven; give us wings of faith and love
Gales of holy aspirations wafting us to realms above;
That with hearts and minds uplifted we with Christ our Lord may dwell,
Where he sits enthroned in glory in his heavenly citadel.
So at last, when he appeareth, we from out our graves may spring,
With our youth renewed like eagles, flocking round our heavenly King,
Caught up in the clouds of heaven, and may meet him in the air,
Rise to realms where he is reigning, and may reign forever there.