Why do hymns for Ascension Day have so many verses? So many long verses?
I went to an Ascension service today (yes, only 39 days after Easter) and we sang "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus," five stanzas sung to Hyfrydol (a tune I used to groan about but have come to terms with over the last twenty-five years). We sang four stanzas of "Beautiful Savior" at communion (which means conscientious singers get two cracks at trying to flip both r's in the word "purer"). We sang all seven stanzas of "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing" as a sending song, four of "Up Through Endless Ranks of Angels," and some other hymn I've forgotten.
This was a daytime service for the senior citizens in our congregation. I was there to sing the Psalm, but the Psalm setting was nothing compared to the endurance required for all the hymn-singing. I came away with a great deal of respect for the singing of Lutheran senior citizens. But I guess, if you're in church, you might as well take as much time as it takes. And it takes a lot of time to tell the Ascension story in "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing." Two full stanzas are devoted to what the angels said to the disciples. It takes three more to get us all in heaven with Jesus.
Jaroslav Vajda's text for "Up Through Endless Ranks of Angels" covers the Ascension from the human point perspective: "Death destroying, life-restoring, Proven equal to our need, Now for us before the Father As our brother intercede." It ends with human yearning, reaching for God: "Oh to breathe the Spirit's grace! . . . Oh to feel the Son's embrace!"
Then there's "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus," which loads up on the Christ triumphant imagery. Many of those images come in short, four-syllable phrases to match the dignified 3/4, breathe-every-other-measure movement of the tune. Only the second stanza refers directly to the bible story. The rest describes the Ascension as the opening scene in the coming of Christ's kingdom on earth, which is what makes the hymn text challening.
I think it's easier for our small-ish minds to think about the Ascension as Jesus going up to heaven, leaving us here on earth, with the promise to send the Spirit. Everybody ends up in the right room in this version, and God's Spirit is housed inside us. But "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus" moves back and forth between heaven and earth: "bread of heaven, here on earth our food, our stay." Jesus "born of Mary" has earth for a footstool and heaven for a throne. It's not a song for a single Christian. It is a community that sings "He is near us" and a community that together remembers the promise "'I am with you evermore.'"
At the final stanza the hymn writer invokes "peaceful Zion," where Jesus rules over all of those redeemed out of every nation. A big vision, God's kingdom coming into being. Hard to keep it in focus. I tried to as I prayed the Lord's Prayer. I've noticed that when praying this prayer in church, my praying mind often doesn't sync with the words coming from my mouth until "Give us this day our daily bread," as if my physical needs were the heart of everything. Really this petition is kind of a footnote, an add-on to the glories recalled and looked forward to in the prayer's opening petitions: Holy is God's name and God's kingdom is coming as God's will is done on earth. That's something to wrestle with on Ascension Day.
Before I go off to bed, I will look for signs of the kingdom seen today, on the 39th day after Easter, 2009: friendships treasured and renewed; high school kids, abled and disabled, sharing a barbecue picnic and games of kickball on a warm, breezy May afternoon; a fifth and sixth grade 4 x 200 relay team in which the last two runners poured on the speed to win a victory shared by all.