One of the things I really like about the 2017 hymnal is that it’s got about twelve hymns about the ascension. It’s nice to have choices, rather than appoint the same couple every year, even if they are really good. Despite that, I figured I should just stick to “one of the greats” and walk us through a classic ascension hymn, See the conqu’ror mounts in triumph. It’s as if each verse brings in a different theological layer to this momentous Gospel event.
See the Conqu’ror mounts in triumph;
See the King in royal state,
Riding on the clouds, his chariot,
To his heav’nly palace gate.
Hark! the choirs of angel voices
Joyful alleluias sing,
And the portals high are lifted
To receive their heav’nly King.
This is focused on the kingship of Christ Jesus. He is a conqueror, his ascension is a victory march, the heavens are opened to welcome him in. Verse two is similarly awe-filled, but quite different.
He who on the cross did suffer,
He who from the grave arose,
He has vanquished sin and Satan;
He by death has spoiled his foes.
While he lifts his hands in blessing,
He is parted from his friends,
While their eager eyes behold him,
He upon the clouds ascends.
This is about the humanity of Jesus. The conqueror and savior is a man – the one who suffered and died, the one who had friends. The context of his death and resurrection is perhaps the most obvious place to start approaching the ascension (and probably is the overriding context by which many people deal with the ascension at all), and although it is the most ‘simple’, it is by no means unimportant.
Verse three may be my personal favorite.
Now our heav’nly Aaron enters,
With his blood, within the veil;
Joshua is come to Canaan,
And the kings before him quail;
Now he plants the tribes of Israel
In their promised resting place;
Now our great Elijah offers
Double portion of his grace.
The Old Testament imagery is out in full force! Jesus is like Aaron: a great high priest; his ascension is his entering into the true holy of holies. Jesus is like Joshua, leading God’s armies to inevitable victory. Jesus is like Elijah, ascending into heaven but leaving behind a spiritual legacy that will surpass the scope of his own earthly ministry. The three offices of Priest, King, and Prophet, as applied to Jesus, make their offerings in this verse. Personally, I think we need more celebration of Christ’s priesthood, Ascensiontide is well-suited to that, and this verse is a good step in the right direction.
The final verse also touches upon the priesthood of Christ, if obliquely.
Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heav’nly places,
There with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
We by faith behold our own.
If verse 2 can be said to be focusing the ascension upon the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus, verse 4 brings in the context of his incarnation. Because Jesus is both God and man, and because Jesus has bodily ascended into the heavenly places at the right hand of the Father, we can say in no uncertain terms that humanity is enthroned with God! He took on our flesh in order that there might be communion between the divine and humanity; it’s a two-way street. He shares our sufferings, we share his glory. He shares our death, we share his victory. So we sing the great mystery of the ascension: we are seated with him on the throne!
This reinforces and echoes the Scripture lessons from Ascension Day, and the Collects from both Ascension Day and Sunday. We’ll take a closer look at those tomorrow.