Ascension is a major public holiday in Belgium. In Bruges, it coincides with the annual ‘Procession of the Holy Blood’, which is the most important day in the city’s civic and religious calendar, attracting between 60,000 and 100,000 visitors. This year, I was delighted to be invited to assist with the celebrations as the guest of the Bishop of Bruges, Lode Aerts.
The day began well. Fr. Augustine Nwaekwe met me at the railway station. As we walked together into town, a small car pulled in ahead of us. A lady jumped out, and with great excitement announced that she was from New Mexico and that she had seen auras of blessing hovering over us both. Was she a prophetess? Well we returned her blessing, and continued on to the residence of Bishop Lode.
Bishop Lode is young, contemporary and humble. He was also extraordinarily welcoming and hospitable. As you can see, he even shared his pastoral staff with me – after all, he said, we are both shepherds.
The day began with a beautiful solemn mass in Saint Saviour’s Cathedral. It is a large medieval building, and it was packed.
The following lunch was the warmest Flemish hospitality, with excellent food and convivial conversation. Yes, you could truthfully describe this as ‘The Feast of the Ascension’.
After the coffee and petit fours, Bishop Lode invited guests to sign the visitors book. He noted that one of the previous signatories was Cardinal Mercier (a Belgian hero of mine) and another even better known was Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II).
The processions began in the afternoon. Special guests were given seats in a centrally placed ‘tribune’, so we had a grandstand view. Along with numerous brass bands, the main feature is a long series of tableaux that depict the story of scripture from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of the Resurrection.
They start with the Garden of Eden. The tree of life is in the centre, and to its left there is a dangerous looking snake…
The scene from Pharaoh’s court was one of my favourites – lots of attention having been paid to the cuneiform.
Later in the sequence, here is John the Baptist being arrested. He was followed by Salome and a troupe of dancing girls, who screamed when a servant ran amongst them with a very realistic head on a platter!
The events of Palm Sunday, the trial, arrest and crucifixion were portrayed vividly before us.
Until we came to the yellow and gold of resurrection and ascension. It was indeed a rich mixture of action, colour, drama and discourse worked out on the city streets by local people who take upon themselves the biblical characters year after year.
After the tableaux, the bishops and priests were invited to join the procession. I think we walked for about 90 minutes in our robes, visiting parts of the city I had never seen before and amidst smiling crowds of all ages.
I was told that around 200 horses take part. Following such a large number of animals around the streets was a vivid reminder that – whilst modern forms of transport cause air pollution – the hygiene issues caused by horse drawn transport were surely far from insignificant too.
But what about the ‘Holy Blood’?
I haven’t yet said much about the holy blood. At the centre of the procession is the phial of holy blood said to have been collected by Joseph of Arimathea and eventually transported to Bruges where it is stored in St. Saviour’s Cathedral. But a theological problem troubled me. If the Ascension teaches us that Jesus’s physical body has left this earth and is now exalted with God the Father in heaven, why are we venerating blood that he supposedly left behind? I was too shy to raise this myself, but Fr. Augustine kindly relayed my puzzle to one of our Catholic hosts. We needn’t worry he told us. The blood is a myth. It didn’t really come from New Testament times. But it does serve to promote veneration of our Lord Jesus, which is surely a good thing.
I couldn’t deny that. We live in a culture where very many people do not know the stories of the Bible. But this annual procession had led upwards of 60,000 people to stand for hours on crowded pavements to watch a powerful enactment of the story of holy scripture.
I returned to Brussels after a most memorable day, feeling there could be few better ways to celebrate the Ascension of Jesus, and God’s desire that people should come to know more deeply the salvation he has wrought for us through biblical history and most especially in the life, death and rising again of the Lord.