How will you celebrate Ascension Day?
He was lifted up before their eyes, and a cloud took him out of their sight – Act 1:9
I couldn’t let this day go by completely unheralded, though in fact we’ll have no service for Ascension Day here at St. Alban’s, nor will it be celebrated at most churches. But Ascension Day is on our liturgical calendar today, and it marks the end of the forty days after Jesus’ crucifixion, a time during which he appeared to his disciples and continued his teaching until ascending to heaven.
I did a little research, and it seems we’ve missed some interesting options for celebrating this day. My online source described a Swedish tradition of going to the woods at 3:00 or 4:00 am to hear the birds at sunrise. These jaunts are called gökotta, or “early cuckoo morning”, and hearing these early morning cuckoo calls are considered good luck. Really? I thought I’d check in with my brother, living in Stockholm these past 20 years, who wrote:
Indeed Kristihimmelfärdsdagen, which literally translates as “Christ’s Journey to Heaven Day” is a national holiday. Everything is closed. Truth be told the Swedes, who might just claim the lowest percentage of church attendance in the world, seem to ‘celebrate’ any possible religious holiday. Yet the truth is after a very long winter these numerous springtime holidays are simply an excuse to run out to country homes and spend long weekends away from the city. No one will attend church this Thursday and few will say a prayer. Sad but true. I have never heard the expression “gökotta”. Not sure what a cuckoo bird looks like though we do have a few woodpeckers in my immediate backyard, which are a sight to behold. Oh and just FYI most people are off from work on Friday as well.
So much for my online research, which also mentioned that in other parts of Europe it is a traditional day of mountain climbing and having picnics on hilltops. Ascension! Naturally England has some of the more colorful ideas for this day, including “beating the bounds”, which involves people walking around their farm, manorial, church or civil boundaries pausing as they pass certain trees, walls and hedges that denote the extent of the boundary to exclaim, pray and ritually ‘beat’ particular landmarks with sticks. I’ll need to check with my friends in the U.K. to see if any of this still hold true. As well, eggs laid on Ascension Day are said to never go bad and will guarantee good luck for a household if placed in the roof. If the weather is sunny on Ascension Day, the summer will be long and hot. If it rains on the day, crops will do badly and livestock will suffer from disease. According to Welsh superstition, it is unlucky to do any work on Ascension Day, particularly sewing, and this day is in fact a national holiday in many countries.
Obviously these traditions and superstitions were attempts to weave together Christian and pagan rituals, or, more likely, an excuse to be outside on spring days. Perhaps they seem a little silly, as most traditions do when not part of your own custom, but like the artistic clouds into which Jesus was drawn up, beliefs and traditions can take whatever shapes the beholder needs or chooses to see. I don’t think that dilutes the truth behind these acts.
The psalm for today – Psalm 47 – announces that God has gone up with the sound of the ram’s horn (v. 5) and commands us to sing praises to God (v. 6). Perhaps you won’t have awakened this morning at 3:00 am to hear cuckoo birds, but maybe you can find a few minutes to sing praises to God? And if not this Vaughan Williams setting of Psalm 47, then belt out the refrain to Hymn 216 while you’re in the shower – Hail thee, festival day! Blest day that art hallowed forever, day when the Christ ascends, high in the heavens to reign.