Sixth Sunday for Easter 17 May 2020
'Hail the day that sees him rise' by Charles Wesley (STF 300)
Our hymn this Sunday is a quintessential piece of Charles Wesley bible rhetoric. See if you can find all the scripture references. There is almost one per verse and in some more than one. This is how the first Methodist congregations would have come to know the bible. They sang the words of scripture.
We stand with the disciples on this Sunday betwixt and between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Wesley invites us, like them to watch Jesus go to the Father. Jesus is ‘ravished from our eyes’. This is an uncomfortable analogy. Is it the Father doing the ravishing or is it the experience of the disciples and Mary Magdalene? Jesus is torn from our grasp. We have a different relationship with him now. Does this work for you?
The hymn is comfortable with the biblical view of the universe even though by the time Wesley wrote it a heaven-above, hell-below and earth in the middle view was questionable. What do we do about this?
One way is to spiritualise it all. We say that it is about mystery and symbol. We do not need to take it literally but make a parable of it.
Yet another way is just not to sing the offending material. I did that for years till I found some hymns I could not sing at all and then I entered, what some call ‘the second naiveté’. We let the bible and Wesley just be of their time. They are part of the tradition. We use them because they help us interpret matters now. We do not try to push ourselves into a way of thinking which does not actually make sense but we try to understand why it made sense then and wonder how we make our own sense of it now.
For the Ascension raises the question of transcendence. The hymn is like the effect of a great cathedral. We are made to look up. Christ ‘reascends his native heaven’ and ‘highest heaven receives him’ and we implore him ‘grant our hearts to you may rise’.
Over the past few decades we have been encouraged to look in and look down for spiritual nurture. God is in the depths of our souls. God is the ground of being. It works for many. But something has been lost. It is the sense of something greater, beyond us. A force, a power that is strange. Intimate yet intangible. Immortal and invisible.
The Ascension stories in Luke 24, John 20 and Acts 1 are wonderful mythic creations which seek to describe the indescribable – they put us in our place – helplessly looking up and away from ourselves into the skies, infinity and beyond – yet knowing ‘still he loves the earth he leaves’ and me and you.