Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ascension Thursday

By accident of the calendar, Memorial Day was celebrated this year on its traditional day, May 30 – not because the traditional date has been restored (although there are those who advocate that) but because May 30 this year fell on a Monday. In 1968, the Uniform Holidays Bill moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some resistance, all 50 states adopted the measure within a few years. I am not a fan of the Uniform Holidays Bill – or of the mindset that motivated it. On the contrary, I count myself among those contend that changing the date to create a 3-day weekend has undermined the meaning of the day and made it merely the symbolic beginning of the summer vacation season. (Beginning in 1987, Hawaii's Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, repeatedly – and unsuccessfully - introduced measures to return Memorial Day to its traditional date.)

I feel somewhat similarly about religious holidays – those once great festivals like Epiphany and Ascension and Corpus Christi that have (in certain jurisdictions) been moved to a nearby Sunday. Epiphany and Corpus Christi, because they are no longer holydays of obligation in the United States, are permanently transferred to Sundays everywhere in the U.S. Ascension remains a holyday in the United States, and so some ecclesiastical provinces still retain it on its traditional day (although many American jurisdictions seem to have availed themselves of the option to move it). When I was stationed in Canada, we celebrated Ascension on a Sunday, and I remember hearing someone once refer to it as “Ascension Thursday Sunday.” More recently, when I was back in New York, we were asked for input on whether to transfer Ascension to a Sunday. One priest, who had previously served abroad in a couontry where Ascension is still a holiday, made an impassioned case for keeping the traditional date and won the argument – at least in our vicariate. In any case, in New York Ascension is still celebrated on its traditional day – today - and so one gets to hear the local news announce that in the entire city what New Yorkers call “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended for that day!

No doubt, there are certainly some valid arguments in favor of transferring the feast to the following Sunday. The question is how compelling such considerations really are. The bishops of England and Wales will discuss at their November meeting whether to reverse a 2006 decision and transfer the celebrations of Epiphany and Ascension from Sunday back to their authentic dates. Given their recent courageous decision to restore Friday abstinence, there is reason to hope that they will do the bold thing in this case as well.

One of the downsides of moving the Ascension is its effect on the traditional notion of the pre-Pentecost “novena.” There was a time, not so long ago, when novenas – nine days of prayer usually in preparation for a major feast or Saint’s day - were widely observed in the Church in this country. Some years ago, I looked at the Parish Novena Booklet that was once in use at Saint Paul the Apostle Church in New York, and I could count eleven such novenas that were then a regular part of the devotional life of that parish. The pre-Pentecost novena is based on the account in Acts 1:12-14, which describes the community disciples in Jerusalem between the Jesus’ Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit. That episode has often been seen as the first “novena” in the Church’s history.

It took place, Acts tells us, in the upper room, a familiar place where the apostles may have regularly gathered. Altogether some 120 disciples were present, all gathered around the apostles, as ever since the Church has been gathered around their successors, the bishops. Also there with them was Mary, the mother of Jesus and now the mother of the Church. The atmosphere in Acts appears almost retreat-like. The gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit are given to us, within the Church, for the sake of the world – and so are intended to be visible. But, beforehand, comes the silent, spiritual process of inner personal preparation - one reason why a renewed awareness of these 9-days prior to Pentecost might be a good idea.

Yesterday was Confirmation Day in my parish. As sacraments go, confirmation can sometimes seem quite elusive, almost an after-thought – or, even worse, a kind of graduation (from Church? from religion?). Yet, unlike graduation, confirmation is not a celebration of separation but of connection. In its original context, confirmation connected baptism, the once-for-all sacrament of entry into the Church, and Eucharist, the regularly repeated sacrament that makes the Church what it is. As celebrated today, confirmation deepens one’s connection with the Church. It expresses the communion of those being confirmed with the bishop – and, through the bishop, their connection with the apostolic origins of the Church. (As in last Sunday’s reading from Acts, in which, when the apostles heard that Philip had baptized some Samaritans, they sent Peter and John to lay hands on them “and they received the Holy Spirit,” thus more completely connecting the newly baptized Samaritans with the apostolic Church).

The gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit are not, of course, confined to Confirmation Day. Confirmation highlights for all of us the significance of these final days of Easter, when we are invited to identify with the 120 disciples in the Upper Room, praying like them for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to continue Christ’s life and mission in our own lives and in our world today.

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