Ascension Day on Thursday 21 May is the spiritual climax of the year.
This Thursday marks Christ’s last resurrection appearance to the disciples who report seeing him ascend.
St Paul said that Christ had been seen by over 500 men and women between resurrection (Easter) and ascension.
For some years Ascension Day has been largely ignored in Britain whilst understood better in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Finland, Holland, Norway, Serbia, Sweden and Switzerland where it is public holiday.
In the British Isles however it is in normal times faithfully kept in many towns and villages which maintain much loved old customs. Oxford, for example, has lots of tower top singing from morning to evening.
So also does Southwark Cathedral where singers are used to climbing the tower early on Ascension morning.
But without this it will still feel an extra special day to those following services on the Southwark Cathedral feed for this will be the first time since mid-Lent that worship comes again from inside the cathedral church.
The Eucharist for Ascension Day at Southwark Cathedral is at 12 noon and can be followed via the website.
The sixth Sunday of Easter is also known as Rogation Sunday since many of this week’s Rogation walks now normally happen on the Sunday.
Without the virus there would have been a tour of parish boundaries, known as beating the bounds, in Cambridge (Little St Mary’s), a procession through the town at Leighton Buzzard (The Wilkes Walk) and a country walk out to an agricultural college at Southwell (Southwell Minster).
Rogation comes from the Latin word rogare meaning to ask which was part of today’s gospel reading (John 16.24 as in Book of Common Prayer) and included the words ‘Ask and you will receive’.
By long tradition at this time God’s blessing is asked for on the crops to be harvested later in the year.
Rogation looks towards Lammas in August and Harvest Festival in October.
During outdoor Rogation processions pauses are made to read the Gospel and say prayers for good crops. Gospel Oak in north London is named after the now felled oak tree where the Gospel was read during beating the bounds.
Beating the bounds was important annual Southwark event in 1536 when Southwark Cathedral was known as Southwark Priory.
In recent years a procession has set out on a route which one year involved a boat trip along the parish boundary in Thames. Inland several stops are made to chalk a date on the ground or a building and say a prayer.
Chalk marks dating from 2004 can still be found on one or two sheltered walls near Shakespeare’s Globe.
An unusual book has been quietly published during the current lock-down.
A launch event would have highlighted the result of the special project which has been supported by a number of individuals, livery companies and churches in The City.
Faith in the City of London by Niki Gorick is a photographic book depicting activities in the City churches.
The Square Mile is one of those places where on Ash Wednesday it is not unusual to see people in the street with ash on their heads. Church attendance is above average as home county residents choose to worship near their workplace where they tend to spend long weekday hours.
The great festivals are marked outwardly such on Ascension Day when there is a ringing of Bow Bells at lunchtime and beating the bounds processions in the afternoon and early evening.
This bold living out the liturgical year is continued at weekends by the small residential population. You can see donkeys on Palm Sunday at St Giles Cripplegate, hot cross buns solemnly distributed at St Bartholomew the Great on Good Friday and egg rolling on Easter morning outside St Bride’s.
Nikki Gorick spent three years making hundreds of visits to obtain the pictures. She claims to have done so as an outsider but she got inside a vestry.
In addition to the annual customs she also records the everyday life in church. There are pictures of Mass at St Mary Moorfields, both ordinary facing the people form and extraordinary east facing, celebrated at its unusual sarcophagus altar.
And on Good Friday at St Bartholomew’s, Nikki does not just catch the hot cross buns outside but also the solemn Liturgy inside beneath the Norman arches.
We are also shown little noticed congregations of Indian and Romanian Orthodox worshipping on Sunday in the churches and Muslims praying together in a livery hall in the working week.
This book is a record of living faith to enjoy and maybe give as a present.
SIR – I was interested to read in Helena Horton’s report (April 10) that Iron Age Britons idolised hares. Every Easter Monday, we host one of Britain’s oldest continuing sporting events: the Hallaton Bottle-Kicking and Hare-Pie Scramble.
A hare pie is baked (my wife Lynne makes it), and is then paraded through Hallaton followed by thousands of people. When it arrives at the church, the village rector cuts it up, and pieces are placed in sacks.
Local villagers then wrestle for them, and for the “bottles” – small kegs of beer. Sadly, due to the coronavirus, the event is cancelled this year for only the second time in its history, which evidence suggests stretches back for over two millennia (it was staged amid the Black Death, and during both World Wars).
It will be greatly missed by the whole area. Let’s hope it can take place in 2021.
Phil Allan Chairman, Hallaton Bottle-Kicking and Hare-Pie Scramble Hallaton, Leicestershire
We might not have Easter eggs, or even fresh eggs, lamb or Easter cake but we can still recall why today is Easter Day just as prisoners of war or those behind the Iron Curtain did. We can live the first Esater Day in real time.
What happened today
Matthew 28.1-15; Mark 16.1-18; Luke 24.1-49; John 20.1-26
Dawn It is still dark when Mary from Magdala near the Sea of Galilee, Mary who was mother of Apostle St James the Less, and Joanna arrive at the tomb with spices to anoint the body of Christ.
They are wondering who will move the stone at the entrance and hoping that the guards will do so for them.
When Mary Magdalen realises that the stone has already been rolled back she turns away. Soon after she sees Peter and John who are also on their way and she runs towards them warning that Christ’s body seems to have been removed. The two shocked disciples start running to the tomb. John makes it there first and looking through the opening sees the linen cloths which had been wrapped round the body folded up on the floor.
When Peter arrives he goes straight in and finds the cloth which had been put over the head. Then incredulous John goes inside as the two realise that Jesus’ warnings were true.
The two shocked disciples leave and Mary Magdalen who had remained crying outside goes inside. She sees two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been. They ask why she is crying.
‘They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him,’ she says turning to go. She is confronted by another figure whom she mistakes for the gardener. As she pleads to be told where the body had been taken, the man speaks revealing himself as Christ by saying in his familiar voice ‘Mary’.
‘Master,’ she replies in recognition as he warns her not to embrace him as he is not yet ascended to heaven.
‘Go and tell my brothers,’ he requests. ‘And tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’
The Ascension would happen before the summer. Meanwhile Mary goes to find the others who, of course, do not believe her.
Afternoon During the afternoon two disciples, not members of the remaining Eleven but Cleophas and another who may have been his wife Mary, are walking from Jerusalem towards Emmaus seven miles away.
They are joined by a stranger who appears to know nothing of the recent events in Jerusalem involving Jesus. The two recount their experiences and then the stranger recalls all the Old Testament passages which foretell these events. They ask their interesting and sympathetic companion to join them at an inn rather than press on alone. At the table the stranger takes bread, blesses it and hands it to them. He disappears as the two realise that Christ had been with them.
Although it was the end of the day they race back to Jerusalem arriving almost certainly by early evening to tell the Eleven. Still the other disciples do not believe that Jesus has appeared even though he may have risen from the dead.
Evening In the evening in Jerusalem ten of the original Twelve are gathered behind closed doors. Thomas is elsewhere. Jesus appears amongst them saying ‘Peace be with you’. He shows them his injured hands and side before saying: ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me so I am sending you.’
He anticipates Pentecost by breathing on them saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain they are retained’. Then they watch him eat a piece of their grilled fish.
Late night or later When Thomas hears about Christ’s appearance from the others he remained doubtful refusing to believe anything unless he can touch the wounds himself.
It’s not Easter yet. Today 11 April is Holy Saturday.
(Easter Saturday is the end of next week, Easter Week.)
This year Holy Saturday feels even more a day of limbo and abnormal. It will feel a long day as it must have for the disorientated disciples. We cannot shorten it by lighting an Easter Vigil Fire outside church at dusk. .
But this afternoon at 4pm there is the opportunity to meditate before the Shroud of Turin via a live online feed.
The Shroud is widely believed, thanks to recent scientific work, to be the cloth which was wrapped around Jesus’s body. It will be found neatly folded tomorrow morning.
A Good Friday meditation before the crown of thorns will be broadcast live from inside the Notre-Dame Cathedral this morning.
The event is being streamed online by France’s Catholic television station, KTO, from 10:30 to 11:30am.
The Good Friday Liturgy with Pope Francis can be seen on Vatican TV at 5pm.
What happened today
Matthew 27.1-61; Mark 15.1-14; Luke 23.1-56; John 8.29-9.42
Following his arrest late last night, Jesus had no sleep. At first light he appears before the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court, which has his hands bound before handing him to Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
He sends him to Herod who swiftly returns Jesus to the governor. He asks Jesus: ‘Are you King of the Jews?’ Jesus just says: ‘It is you who say it.’ The chief priests made many accusations but Jesus says nothing more.
Being the Passover, it was usual for the governor to release one prisoner and Pilate suggests that it should be Jesus. However, the crowd watching the exchanges and egged on by the chief priests, calls out the name of Barabbas who is also being held.
‘What am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ asks Pilate and in reply the crowd shouts, ‘Let him be crucified’. They do so again even when Pilate asks them what it is that Jesus has done wrong.
Barabbas is released whilst Jesus is led away by the Roman soldiers. This may all have happened by 8.30am.
The soldiers dress Jesus in a purple robe and put a crown made of thorny twigs on his head. Speaking in Greek they mock him saying: ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ After he has been stripped, tied to a pillar and whipped he is allowed to dress before being led outside the walls of Jerusalem to Golgotha for crucifixion, a common Roman sentence.
Simon, a visitor from Libya, is hailed on the way and ordered to carry the wooden crossbeam weighing about 30lb and needed for the crucifixion. On top of the high ground at Golgotha there are tall wooden posts and the crossbar was fixed to one to create a cross.
After Jesus has declined a drink of vinegar and myrrh, he is stripped and nailed to the cross by his hands and feet. Being crucified on either side are two robbers. The nails are expertly driven into the hands to prevent the bodies from falling off.
Mark suggests this is as early as 9am. The soldiers stick a notice on top saying ‘King of The Jews’ and then throw dice to decide which of them should have first choice of the prisoner’s garments.
Jesus is mocked by some passers-by.
At 3pm, just before dying after maybe as long as six hours on the cross, he calls out in Aramaic the first line of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’
A study of the Sudarium in Oviedo Cathedral suggests that the body of Jesus remains on the cross for another hour. Then it is laid on its right side on the ground for about 45 minutes.
Nicodemus has arrived with myrrh for the body just as the Three Kings had brought myrrh at Jesus’ birth in anticipation of this traumatic moment.
Joseph of Arimathea, who has obtained permission to take care of the body, brings a large linen cloth. At 5pm the body is picked up and carried for about five minutes to a nearby tomb which belonged to Joseph. There it is wrapped in the cloth, possibly the Shroud of Turin, and myrrh is sprinkled on top.
By 6pm darkness is approaching and Mary Magdalene sees the stone rolled across the tomb entrance.