Yesterday, the rest of the United States finally celebrated the Ascension of the Lord - catching up, so to speak, with the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Omaha, which still celebrate it on its traditional day. (And even those six jurisdictions annually join the rest of the country in anticipating or postpoing the Epiphany to the nearest Sunday and postponing Corpus Christi to the following Sunday).
However one feels about all of that, there can be no doubt that those changes were all initially made with the best of intentions. Back in the 19th century, the Paulist parish in New York routinely dealt with the problem of people having to work on holydays by having Mass at 5:00 a.m. Well, those days are gone! In the waning decades of the 20th century, shifting holydays to Sundays seemed like a more promising solution, given the increasing marginalization of religious observances in our secualrized society. Changing the rhythm of the liturgical calendar seemed at the time like a small price to pay to facilitate fuller participation in the observance of holydays - just as in the 1950s and 1960s blowing up the traditional order of daily prayer seemed like a small price to pay for the presumed pastoral benefits of afternoon and evening Masses.
But what happens when Sunday itself loses its character? To an extent barely foreseeable even 50 years ago, Sunday is now largely just another day - an ordinary workday for many, and for many more a busy day of sports, shopping, and other activities. Even where Mass attendance remains steady, it is frequently just one of many activities crammed into yet another busy day. The days of Mass in the morning, followed by festive, family dinner at home, followed by visits with relatives and friends, or a relaxed afternoon excursion - the standard Sunday pattern in my childhood - those days are again virtually gone.
Moreover, in a society which runs on secularized rhythms rather than religious ones, the liturgical feasts and seasons of the Church's yearly cycle simply count for less and less as part of people's ordinary lived experience - just as the liturgical hours of the Church's daily cycle (and the bells that announced them) have largely faded from ordinary daily life. Except for Christmas, which has guaranteed its social relevance by becoming the year's secular celebration par excellence, how many liturgical feasts and seasons still successfully make much of an impression on popular consciousness? When we say, "Today the Church celebrates the Ascension ... or Pentecost ... or the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time," how much impact does that actually make - even with the visual aid of a change in liturgical color? So, in the end, how much of a difference does it really make in today's world that we celebrated the Lord's Ascension on the 43rd dayof Easter instead of the 40th?
To be honest, whether we recall the Ascension on the 40th or the 43rd day really doesn't matter all that much. What does matter is that we do recall it - and the larger story of which it is such a crowning part. Fighting the good fight to preserve traditonal holydays may be an effort worth making. But much - much - more critical is some serious effort to restore and salvage Sunday itself, while Sunday still matters enough and to enough people and still has some shreds of its status in society.
From 321 A.D. through the late 20th century, Sunday's specialness was widely acknowledged in civil law. But a living, vibrant Christian community can and will keep Sunday - and seriously struggle to salvage its specialness - even without civil support. After all, it was when Sunday was still no holiday at all that Christians started celebrating it in the first place. During the brutal persecution of Emperor Diocletian, Christians risked their lives rather than miss Sunday Mass - rather than allow Sunday to be just another secular day. The famous response of the North African martyrs of Abitina remains a challenge to us today:"Without fear of any kind we have celebrated the Lord's Supper, because it cannot be missed."