Ascensiontide is a short but fascinating season. There is on the one hand the celebration of Jesus’ returning into heaven and taking his place seated at the right hand of the Father; but there is also the ten-day period in which the apostles were left without him and before the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost. We can imagine them wondering what exactly had been meant by “I will send you another Comforter,” as they waited in Jerusalem. John Keble wrote lines about this in his classic collection “The Christian Year:”
…As when the’ unclouded heavens were rent
Opening his road,
Nor yet his Holy Spirit sent
To our abode.
Ten days th’ eternal doors display’d
Were wondering (so th’ Almighty bade)
Whom Love enthron’d would send, in aid
Of souls that mourn,
Left orphans in Earth’s dreary shade
As soon as born.
The full poem can be read here. So, along with the celebratory Ascension hymns this Sunday (“Hail, Thou Once-Despised Jesus;” “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus”), the anthems will bring the contemplative side of this liturgy into focus. Orlando Gibbons’ verse anthem “If Ye Be Risen Again with Christ” sets text from Colossians 3–“Seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.” Paired with that, as a communion motet, will be Henry Purcell’s setting of the Collect for the Sunday after Ascension. Both Gibbons and Purcell wrote in the continuum of the English Reformation tradition which mandated understandable vernacular text-setting; while not simplistic music, it is communicative, lively, and beautiful.