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May 11, 2024

Sisters and Brothers,

 “Holy Thursday”
William Balke (1757-1827)

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean

The children walking two & two in red & blue & green

Grey headed beadles walkd before, with wands as white as snow

Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow


O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town

Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own

The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs

Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands


Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song

Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among

Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor

Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

This poem, included in Blake’s 1789 book Songs of Innocence, depicts an Ascension Day ceremony in which the children of London’s charity schools and orphanages are into worship at St. Paul’s Cathedral. In Blake’s day, Ascension Day was known as Holy Thursday which is now a commonly term for Maudy Thursday in Holy Week. Blake sees a beauty and a power in the poorest and smallest of London’s population in a time when the hierarchy of socio-economic class was at it harshest. His describing them as flowers, or to the Flow of the Thames, or harmonious. thunderings among the seats of heaven are a bitter criticism of self-perpetuating poverty and pity replacing true Christian charity.

 I offer it to you this Ascensiontide, because the story of Christ’s Ascension now seems so strange and obscure that take little time to interpret the narrative, to find meaning in it, and even less time to have the story interpret and criticize us. What does it mean that he died for us? What does it mean that we are raised to new life with him? What does it means that he rules above?

 Blake saw beauty, power, dignity, and the children’s voices being heard in heaven. He such in people who were, when not invisible to the larger society, were looked on with scorn. The world has changed so much and, ironically, so very little since this poem was written, this interpretation and criticism were offered. Society still has, privileged classes of people. And many of us are of those classes, though we’d deny that more often than not. Though there are public policies, provisions, and accommodations in place, there still is crippling, self-perpetuating poverty, ignorance, and prejudice. There still are people scorned into invisibility to whom we make the most distant donations (complaining all the while how those donations are levied and then used) to assuage our guilt and affirm our scorn.

All the while, Christ’s Passion, Resurrection, and Reign say something to us about the way things are, about the way we allow them to continue, about the way we doubt the fully transformative power of Christ’s many gifts. We are called time and time again to see and cherish beauty and dignity, to work for justice and peace, to love and left to heaven the needs of this whole world entrusted to our care.