You don’t have to go far on the web to find criticism of the transfer of today’s feast from today to this coming Sunday. “Ascension Sunday” somehow doesn’t sound right, does it? The first reading for Ascension Mass says that Jesus was with the Apostles for 40 days before being taken up. Can’t we keep our liturgical calendar in line with the New Testament?
But it’s not that clear-cut. The Acts of the Apostles has a 40-day interval between the Resurrection and the Ascension, but the Gospel of Luke has the Ascension taking place already on Easter Sunday evening. Christians of the early Church, those closest in time to the Lord’s Resurrection, did not celebrate a feast of Ascension at all for several centuries. The earliest liturgical celebration of Ascension seems not to have been on the 40th day, but on the 50th day, i.e. Pentecost. Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 340 AD) reports that Pentecost celebrates the Ascension of the Savior and the descent of the Holy Spirit. Thomas Talley read Egeria’s cryptic remarks to mean that in Jerusalem at the end of the fourth century, the Ascension was celebrated both on the 40th day, a Thursday, and on Pentecost. After the end of the fourth century, Ascension came to be celebrated universally on the Thursday forty days after Easter. So it has been down through the centuries, East and West, until very recently.
I regret the change. I wish it were more possible for us to observe the Christian calendar with its rhythm of fasts and feasts, ever calling us out of the humdrum of endless work weeks and into that other time which is God’s time. The change is yet one more dreary reminder that liturgical Christianity is in decline and the secular culture is winning. I’m sure I’ll hear the annual complaint from at least one monk in the refectory at lunch today. Some have wondered whether it wouldn’t be possible for the monastery to observe the Ascension on the “real day” since we’re in church today anyway. But I suppose that would be confusing for guests who are with us on Sundays but not weekdays, or with us on weekdays but elsewhere on Sundays.
Let’s not lose the main point. The meaning of Ascension is not that Jesus is leaving us, but that he is with us for all time. That’s true whether we observe the Ascension or not. That’s true whether we place the Ascension on Easter Sunday, Pentecost, or the 40th day. The main issue, I am convinced, is not what Eusebius or Egeria or anyone else once did, but what we do in our challenging cultural situation to celebrate Jesus’s enduring presence with us. The Bishops in most places have decided that it is pastorally advisable to transfer the Ascension to Sunday, and I accept their judgment. With regrets, to be sure. But my regrets are tempered by my faith in Jesus’ enduring presence with us.
So then: Happy Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter Season!