Thursday, May 14, 2015

40 Days After

Today is the 40th day after Easter, the traditional date for celebrating the Ascension of the Lord. In some countries, Ascension Thursday is still a legal holiday. In New York City, it is not quite a legal holiday; but, because of Ascension, there is no "Alternate Side of the Street Parking," which is almost as good as being a holiday! In much of the United States, however, the Ascension is transferred to the 7th Sunday of Easter – next Sunday, May 17.

Liturgically, the Ascension has traditionally been celebrated as one of the 5 greatest annual solemnities - along with Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Until 1955, it had a full octave. And in some pre-Tridentine medieval rites, its Mass had a glorious sequence, Omnes Gentes Plaudite.

Historically, the Ascension marked the end of a series of post-Easter appearances by the Risen Lord to his disciples, who then remained behind to continue Christ’s life and work in the world. Hence all those paintings of the Ascension which show the disciples looking up at a disappearing Jesus or staring forlornly up at the clouds. Hence too the former custom of solemnly extinguishing the Easter Candle after the reading of the Gospel account of the Ascension. (In those days, both the Easter Candle's first and final appearances were ritualized, effectively bookending its presence in the sanctuary. Nowadays, the Easter Candle seems to hang around the church all year long, somewhat bereft of its original symbolism.)

In any case, the Ascension is less about Christ’s departure than about where he is now. Theologically, Ascension Day celebrates the fact that the Risen Christ is now (as we sing every Sunday in the Creed) “seated at the right hand of the Father,” where he lives forever to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25). This solemnity directs our attention to Christ, who ascended into heaven before the eyes of his disciples, who now is seated at the right hand of the Father, invested with royal power, who is there to prepare a place for us in the kingdom of heaven, and who is destined to come again at the end of time. [Ceremonial of Bishops, 375].

The Ascension is likewise less about Jesus’ absence than about his continued presence in our world in and through his Church. Before his ascension, Jesus instructed his disciples to await his parting gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Acts of the Apostles portrays a group of about 120 disciples, gathered around the 11 apostles and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, praying together for a period of 9 days after the Ascension, in preparation for the gift of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Church’s mission to continue Christ’s life and work in the world to the ends of the earth,

The traditional Catholic devotion of the 9-day novena of prayer has its foundation in this formative experience of the early Church. As the Church’s original novena, the 9-day period between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, is particularly focused on highlighting the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, who inspires and empowers Christ’s mystical body, the Church, for its mission in the world.

During this period of preparation for Pentecost, it like to recall some words, preached on Pentecost Sunday 1902, by one of Servant of God Isaac Hecker’s companions in the founding of the Paulist Fathers and himself the Paulists’ 3rd Superior General, Fr. George Deshon, CSP, (1823-1903): The Holy Ghost is the life of the Church, and he is also the life of each one of us, if we will only let him be, if we will only submit to let him rule and teach us. He sits in our souls as the Lord in his own temple, and if we would only quiet ourselves and still the noise and turbulence of petty, temporal, perishing things, and affairs which occupy us and take up our whole attention, he would speak to us and teach us how to practice all virtue and keep out of all difficulties, and to be great friends with God and great saints, and secure peace in this world and our salvation hereafter.

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