Ascension and Pentecost

Songs of Mystery and Diversity

Ascension and Pentecost are the culmination of the Jesus story that begins each year with the Nativity and moves through the life of Jesus until we come to the end of his earthly ministry and the arrival of the Advocate Jesus promised in John 14. Marking these two days with particular grandeur has a long history, so you are in good company if you choose to use special music or striking liturgical elements. In fact, Pentecost is one of the oldest Christian liturgical celebrations with ties to a Jewish holiday that predates Jesus. Ascension is also one of the oldest liturgical celebrations, with roots going as far back as the fourth century (about the same time as the first Christmas celebrations).

Both Ascension and Pentecost have mystical aspects that should not be overlooked in our celebrations. Protestants sometimes try to explain exactly what happened when Christ ascended or when the Holy Spirit came down on the day of Pentecost, but to try to fully explain such events is a fool’s errand. Rather, as with the incarnation or the resurrection, there are elements to these stories that will forever remain a mystery—and isn’t that wonderful? We serve a God who has self-revealed as a friend, yet God is so great, so immense, that we will never in this life fully understand this God who is One-in-Three and Three-in-One. Thanks be to God for the mystery!

Ascension and Pentecost also present the challenge of pivoting away from Jesus’s earthly ministry and toward the body of Christ known as the church. When we focus on the life of Jesus, the narrative is simple. But the body of Christ involves other people, and that’s when we begin to run into . . . well, let’s say “complications.” Since the first Pentecost, the church has been made up of people from a multitude of places who speak a multitude of languages, and since then the church has only grown in its complexity and diversity. While this complexity and diversity certainly bring with them a tendency to argue and disagree, the gift of remembering Pentecost is the chance to celebrate God’s work in people and places we do not understand. If we do not or cannot sing the songs of Christians from around the world in a spirit of thankfulness and celebration on Pentecost, when can we? So lean into the cross-cultural opportunities for celebrating God’s diversity that the day of Pentecost brings us.


Five Songs for Ascension

“You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd” Dunstan, LUYH 225, GtG 274, SSS 210

Paired with the singable minor-key French tune PICARDY, this text by Sylvia Dunstan is entitled “Christus Paradox.” The text leans into the mystery of Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension and is a perfect fit for this particular day. The PICARDY tune works wonderfully on organ (solo out that melody with a nice reed), piano (use an ostinato open fifth), or with a band (grab your delay pedal).

“Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies / Walk in the Light” Wesley, LYUH 667, GtG 662

OK, I cheated. This is actually two different songs. One is the stately tune RATISBON with Wesley’s original text; this can be found in many hymnals. The other option is a Black gospel song often associated with Christmas/Epiphany but which also contains text adaptations from Wesley’s ascension hymn. What a great excuse to use “Walk in the Light” more than once a year!

¡El cielo canta alegría! / Heaven Is Singing for Joy” Sosa, GtG 382, SSS 13

This heavenly fiesta song is a perfect introduction to Spanish-language singing for congregations who have not sung in Spanish before. A beautiful image is painted by pairing a text about heaven singing for joy along with music in the style of precolonial South America that invokes a religious celebration called carnavalito. When singing these alleluias, even the most frozen of your chosen might feel their feet, knees, and hips begin to move to the beat.

“Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun”  Watts, LUYH 219, GtG 265, SSS 209

Is a list complete without an Isaac Watts text? This is one of Watts’s most well-known hymns, and it deserves to be sung. This text is particularly appropriate for Easter, Ascension, and Christ the King Sunday and is usually sung to the sturdy tune DUKE STREET.

“Soon and Very Soon” Crouch, LUYH 482, GtG 384, SSS 357

This song is not a typical Ascension choice, but I love having another opportunity to sing it. If the song isn’t already in your church’s repertoire, Ascension is a good time to introduce it. It uses language about our final journey to heaven, and the remembrance of Christ ascending before the disciples just begs for this song to be sung to describe the obvious conclusion of the disciples’ earthly ministry. Their friend is ascending, but after their work is done they too will go “see the King.”

Five Songs for Pentecost 

Wa Emimimo / Come, O Holy Spirit” Traditional Yoruba, GtG 283

This song from West Africa is extremely well known among the Yoruba people, of whom 200,000 live in the United States. Because the text is pronounced phonetically and the song—sung cyclically—is short, it is easy to teach, and an English-speaking congregation can sing it well. Beckon the Holy Spirit by using this song as a processional hymn, a prayer song woven into a call to worship, or a communion song. 

“As the Wind Song Through the Trees” Murray, Wong, GtG 292

This is among my ten favorite hymns written in the last twenty years, and no list I compose is complete without a Shirley Erena Murray text. The imagery of the wind rustling through the trees and a rainbow after rain, as well as the beautiful communion imagery in stanza two, are paired perfectly with a lilting tune that stays within an easily singable pentatonic scale.

“We Are the Church” Avery, Marsh, SWM 246

When talking about the beginning of the church, I would be remiss not to include the 1970s children’s hymn that shaped and continues to shape my understanding of what—or better yet, who—the church is. Not only should every child know this hymn, but every person in your congregation should learn it and sing it each and every year.

“I Dream of a Church” Miller

Part of the gift of Pentecost is the vision for what the church can and should be. This song by Mark Miller is a beautiful expression of that future church that God wants us to become. This song would work well as a solo or choir piece, or it could be the final hymn for your Pentecost service, sung as a solo the first time and then by the full congregation. The song and the reproducible congregational part is found in the collection Roll Down, Justice! published by Choristers Guild.

Pentecost Medley

OK, I’m cheating again; one of my suggestions is really three songs. But I’m imagining them being sung as a medley to make a theological statement about Pentecost while also helping your congregation sing songs from three very different sources. This medley works well sung in the key of E flat, E, or even F. 

“Breathe on Me, Breath of God” Hatch, LUYH 747, GtG 286, SSS 224 

is just asking to be sung a cappella in four parts. Don’t hesitate to teach your choir this song to help sustain the congregation’s voice. It’s a fervent prayer for God to breathe life into us, both individually and as a church. 

Dios Está Aquí Mateo, LUYH 522, GtG 411, SSS 382

is a well-known corito (little chorus) across much of Latin America. It’s a beautiful expression of belief that God is in each breath we take and an affirmation and poetic expansion of the idea expressed in the last song.

“We Are Standing on Holy Ground” Davis, GtG 406

is a mid-1980s praise song still often sung today. The idea is simple: when we gather as the body of Christ, we are standing on holy ground because Jesus is there with us. The medley ends with this gentle yet powerful reminder that God is here today through the Holy Spirit, and that means we are indeed standing on holy ground.

I hope that this list not only helps you in your planning but spurs your imagination and helps you and your worship planning team pay attention to the movements of the Spirit in your midst as you work towards God’s kingdom on earth.

Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song for The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada while also serving as director of Liturgical Worship at St. John’s Lutheran Church Sweet Air in Phoenix, MD. He is a graduate of Wingate University and Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. He is a published author and composer in the field of church music.

Reformed Worship 147 © March 2023, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.