Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ascension Thursday

This is the 40th day of Easter, which since the 4th century  has been observed as the feast of the Ascension (in keeping with the clear chronology of Acts 1). In the calendar of the Universal Church, that is still the case. But in many places around the world - including much of the United States - the Ascension has been postponed to next Sunday, which some may see as as way of keeping the Ascension visible in an era of decreasing holy day attendance, while others may see it as signaling that Ascension just isn't quite as important as it used to be when we were expected to make room for it in our ordinary schedules.

Of course, in the long run it may not matter much whether we celebrate Ascension on Thursday or on Sunday. As Sunday Mass competes increasingly unsuccessfully with Sunday Brunch. soccer, and any number of other alternatives, the Lord's Day too no longer seems as important as it used to when we expected to take time to observe it. But that is another issue for another day!

Back to the Ascension, whatever day we celebrate it, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore its importance. It is no accident that the Roman Canon treats Ascension as one of the five most special feasts of the year (along with Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost). And, in its ancient Roman way, the Canon also highlights why Ascension is so important: Celebrating that most sacred day on which your Only Begotten Son, our Lord, placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself.

We can easily fall into treating Ascension - and Pentecost, with which it is so closely related - as just historical commemorations. The Risen Lord ascended to his Father and stopped appearing on earth. Then 10 days later his disciples received the Holy Spirit and began the Church. There is nothing wrong with that formulation. But is very incomplete. It minimizes our appreciation of why Ascension and Pentecost matter now.

Whether celebrated on its proper day or on Sunday, Ascension is about where the Risen Christ is now, enthroned at the right hand of the Father, where he lives forever to intercede for us (Hebrews 7:25). The Church today lives on, continuing Christ's life and mission in the world, in that intercessory dynamic. The Church's participation in that dynamic is facilitated by the Triune God's outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, not just on some long-ago Pentecost and not just on some moderately memorable Confirmation Day, but here and now, and now and forever.

Thus, the practice of observing the 9-days' interval between today and Pentecost as a Novena for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit is not just some historical play-acting but an earnest identification with the Church's founding for the sake of her ongoing life and mission in the present.

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