Happy Not-Ascension Thursday!

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!



  1. Out East we thankfully observe the solemnity on its proper day. Along with moving the Ascension of the Lord back to its proper place in the calendar, Epiphany should again be moved to its proper date, the “some holy days have no obligation if they fall on Saturday or Monday but others do” decision must be dropped, and perhaps restoring the octave of Pentecost.

    1. Fr. Costigan, I’m all for liturgical integrity. So I’m open to all your ideas but the last. The integrity of the 50 days is seriously compromised by a Pentecost octave, I think. That’s why they eliminated it already before Vatican II.

      1. That’s why I added the “perhaps.” I really think a look at the calendar should have been done with the revised Missal in 2000/

      2. When was the octave of Pentecost eliminated? I thought it was retained until the 1969 missal. It was my understanding that Pius XII had suppressed all octaves other than Christmas, Easter and Pentecost in ’55 and there was no other legislation until the Missal of Paul VI.

      3. I think the integrity of the 50 days is far less compromised by a Pentecost Octave than by the insertion of a passion-oriented novena to overshadow Easter Week leading up to a feast day (without its own propers, no less!) overlapping one of the Paschal Sundays.

      4. Ed – you’re correct, my mistake. As you say, Pius XII reduced octaves to only those three. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. I personally think that Ash Wednesday, Holy Thrusday, Good Friday and Ascension Thursday are wonderful week day celebrations that should stay on their day. The only one that was obligatory of the ones mentioned was Ascension Thursday. We should have just eliminated the “obligation” in those places that had a hard time with multiple masses on that day. Some say moving it and Epiphany to Sunday gives more people an experience of celebrating it, but the same could be said of any Holy Day, such as Annunciation. Should we move it to the closest Sunday and then make sure 9 months later that Christmas is on a correlating Sunday? What about my huge Christmas collection during the week? It will be compromised this Christmas since it falls on Sunday this year and most of our Masses will be on Saturday! What about that! That’s a discussion! We’ve already determined our Christmas Day Masses which will be on Sunday, we’re eliminating two of them and adding 3 more on Saturday night! I hate it. But my people love it.

    1. Christmas Day falls on a Saturday this year. Now that’s a real pain – you can bet the church will be half empty on Sunday morning for the Feast of the Holy Family.

  3. Perhaps the real question we need to be asking is: ‘what does it mean to celebrate a holy day of obligation in our contemporary culture?’ I suspect that even many of our people who are regular churchgoers don’t bother to come on holy days during the week. I don’t mean to praise this but simply to observe what seems to be a fact.

    1. Indeed, we should ask about the need for preceptual obligation of non-divine origin that purport to bind under pain of grave sin. I think the case an be made that the preceptual approach was much more brittle, less supple the approach taken in other liturgical churches. It’s not like the concept is one that was fixed universally for the entirety of church history; in fact, the history of the past several hundred years (since modern nation states started to pressure the Church to relent on the obligation so as to improve business, shall we say) has been one of fairly constant regression.

      As for me, I am glad I live in a diocese where Ascension is celebrated on its proper day, and the shape of the pre-Pentecost novena is preserved. I wish Epiphany were as well (maybe, with increasing Hispanic presence in the US Catholic Church, the transferral will eventually be reconsidered?). The five major feasts – Triduum, Nativity, Pentecost, Epiphany and Ascension – merit their proper days.

      And I wish more local churches (at the parish and diocesan level) celebrated their patronal/titular and dedicatory solemnities with festivity – and in such cases I would not mind using the option to transfer those to a Sunday in Ordinary Time if their proper dates are pastorally inconvenient.

  4. Two of the most well attended days in my parish are Ash Wednesday and All Souls Days, both of which are very well done liturgically and pastorally. If you do liturgy well with a pastoral impact you don’t need to worry about obligation or what day it is on.

    If Epiphany were a celebration of Baptism as in the East rather than the wise men as in the West, it could be done well liturgically and pastorally. I love the Byzantine readings for the office, and the Great Blessing of Waters. Ascension Thursday is more of a problem both liturgically and pastorally. The Transfiguration appeals more to me. We should move the Annunciation to Advent as it was (is?) with the Ambrosian tradition and some other places in the West at one time. Again I think it would work liturgically and pastorally.

  5. The John Paul II Center in Yorba Linda, CA was full last night for the post-sundown (i.e. not vigil) EF celebration of the Ascension. An EF on Thursday and an OF on Sunday would allow a double celebration!

    1. Yes, this is the problem with having a different form that doesn’t follow the current calendar. Everything is in a parallel world.

      1. I’m not sure that you can make a good case that essential uniformity existed in the “current calendar” even before Summ. Pont. Parallel worlds existed long before then. I’m even aware of some Benedictine monasteries that have kept the old March 21 date for the feast of St. Benedict but not all do.

  6. I too would wish for a more natural observance, assuming we can disentangle ourselves from selective literalism.

    Jack’s point on celebrating liturgy well is well taken. It, as well as the “pastoral concession” of moving feasts to Sunday speaks to me of a certain lamentable Catholic minimalism. I could see parishes celebrating not only Mass, but creating a festival opportunity to accompany Ascension, and other observances.

    Ash Wednesday shows us people will come in numbers, un-obliged. We set the bar too low for laity. We focus on legality instead of festivity. We and our bishops get lazy on this particular Spring Thursday. Most everybody loses.

    1. Todd – these are fantastic points you have made!

      I totally agree that Catholics can become very legalistic in their views, resulting in the Catholic minimalism you describe. Pretty much all Catholics know in the back of their minds the list of obligations that have to be met to maintain their “in good standing” mark. Then there is the influence of the secular society we live in that encourages us to rearrange priorities so that our religious observences and obligations are the first thing to be thrown overboard when our day-to-day lives become a little hectic or stressful. All that remains is that “bare minimum” list, and little desire to do anything more.

      Think of what would happen if parishes began organizing events around these feast days – events that are true festivals? I bet if Catholics began to live the Church’s liturgical calendar, celebrating its feasts and observing the periods of penance and solemnity, a sense of Catholic identity would grow and people would begin moving beyond these legalistic views. As you mention, Ash Wednesday packs out most churches. I think the people in the pew want these things, but parishes have to re-establish it as a priority and quit letting the “pastoral considerations” dictate where the bar is set. A sort of “if you build it, they will come” scenario.

  7. “The integrity of the 50 days is seriously compromised”
    Sorry, Fr Ruff, but that sounds like something emanating from an ivory tower, devoid of the sensibilities due to the faithful who cherish extending the joy of a wonderful feast through an octave, the octave of Pentecost.

    Our friend Fr Mark at Vultus Christi has a wonderful comment on this so I would rather he speak for me:


    It is Beauty that will save the world, not the experts who throw away 1500 years of life changing human experience in loving the Lord through the liturgy of the Church.

    1. Hi Ted – Oh I think we should respect everyone’s sensibilities including those who cherish the Pentecost octave. But in this case I don’t think there’s good reason to keep or reintroduce it, even though some cherish it.
      I realize the Dostoyevsky quote on beauty is a rhetorical flourish and not a precise theological formulation. Still, I think we have to be very cautious of it. Only Christ is our Savior (I know you believe that). There’s really no justification for beauty at all, I don’t think, unless it can be shown that it is in service of larger Gospel values. Otherwise we risk falling into 19th century aestheticism of the Romantics. The proper response to the ugliness in our Church and our liturgy is not aestheticism, but rather, really deep thinking about the particular beauty which might be characteristic of the Reign of God.

    2. If you ditch the Pentecost octave, why not ditch the Easter octave? After all, one could say that the entire season of Easter is the Easter season, none of it should be more Easter season than any other other. Heck, the Christmas octave is already not an octave in any practical way. Just get rid of them all!!

      I like the old season of time after Pentecost, rather than ordinary time, because it represents the age that we are currently in. We existed in the time after Pentecost, and representing us in the Church calendar was particularly touching; we were part of the calendar, just like the Nativity, the entrance into Jerusalem, the Passion, and the Resurrection. Now we are no longer part of the narrative that is the Church calendar. Salvation history has become ordinary, or at least that’s what it seems.

  8. Almost alone in the UK, I positively welcome our bishops’ recent decision to move Ascension to the Sundaay; it brings out the connection between the Resurrection and the Ascension, and it subverts the idea that the Lord rose back into the kind of existence he had previously had for forty days before then disappearing. I think the Lucan paradigm encourages people to see the Ascension as a kind of more dignified rerun of Good Friday–Jesus leaving us properly rather than ignominiously. The truth is that he rose into a life that is indestructible, is preparing a place for us to join him, and continues to manifest his presence with us till the end of time

    1. Just on a point of information, it appears that what the English and Welsh Bishops actually wanted to do was leave Epiphany, Ascension and Corpus Christi on their traditional days but remove the obligation. Rome, however, would not allow them to do that….

      1. Thank you Paul for mentioning Corpus Christi.

        One of the problems with these feasts moving to Sunday is how they “ruin” the lectionary. 2-3 years ago, when Easter was on its earliest possible day, we heard a series of Sunday readings that was only heard once before since Vatican II, because Corpus Christi so often replaces it.

  9. Fr Ruff:
    God created the world from the Beautiful Ideas that are in His mind; which is why creation is good and beautiful. Beauty is a transcendental as the schoolmen surmised. But, as Ratzinger also pointed out, the Christian conception of Beauty goes beyond that of the ancient Greeks who were perplexed by it and explained it as mere harmony. To anyone, including the Greeks, a man suffering and dying on a cross presents an ugly and repulsive picture. But when it is revealed that God himself is the sufferer because of His Love for man that picture is transformed into a Beauty that transcends the cosmos. Indeed, Christ is the most excellent Form of Beauty.
    The Eastern Churches and Anglo-Catholics, for instance, and the Catholic Church (until a perverse idea of noble
    simplicity took hold after Vatican II it seems) have long recognised that Christ’s presence can be grasped through the great Beauty of the liturgy, whether depicted in the art of the church or expressed through the music. Indeed, the symbols and sacred actions surrounding the Eucharist present a Beauty which is Christ himself present as the Bread and Wine. We eat and drink Beauty, not mere bread and wine. The point is that Beauty is what moves the world, not a neat and tidy rationally sanitised liturgy. Beauty has little to do with the latter. When the Beauty of Christ is not present in the liturgy there is no attraction, no movement, of souls towards Him, and the churches at worst become empty.

  10. I live in a part of the UK which is culturally very Catholic, with many people descended from French, Irish and Italian immigrants. More recently people from Kerala and the Philippines and come to live in our community. And Father has plenty of queries and complaints about Holy Days being moved.

    Attendance on Maundy Thursday, however, is noticeably poor. For the last three or four years, Father has spoken about the Triduum and invited people to come – to no avail. After all, they’ve told him, “it’s not a Holy Day of obligation, is it!”

    Our newest choir member, Maria, is from Zimbabwe. Minutes before this year’s Easter Vigil she whispered to me, “There are lots of empty seats. At home you have to get to the church an hour early at Easter – or you have to stand.”

    The plan for next year’s Easter Triduum is to begin a snowball of invitations. We’re asking those who usually come to invite a neighbour from the pew in the hope that, the following year, they will invite someone else, and so on.

    In our part of the world we have certainly developed a culture of – as Todd observes above – “legality instead of festivity”. I wonder if the ingrained idea of “obligation” has had a negative effect in the modern world.

  11. My French-Canadian mother had drilled me on the Holy Days of Obligation before we had them in my Catholic school. But hers were the Canadian ones, not the USA!
    And when we visited her father in the summertime, he kept the peasant Breton French ones of his youth — a 3rd set!!
    It all depends upon the frame of reference!
    As the Church in the USA absorbs more immigrants and becomes a majoriity of non-white heritage, then maybe the Days of Obligation will have to be adjusted as well!!

  12. I noticed something interesting in the Lectionary after the readings for Pentecost day. It says something like (I don’t have the exact words in front of me now) “if is customary to celebrate Mass the days following Pentecost readings from Pentecost may be used” or something to that effect. I thought that was interesting relating to the above discussion on the octave of Pentecost.

  13. Fr Costigan, that rubric is for the instance when the Monday or even the Tuesday after Pentecost is obligatory for the faithful to celebrate. I suppose a parish or diocese under the patronage of the Holy Spirit could celebrate their name feast more fully on the day after Pentecost. Otherwise I’m not aware of any practice of the fifty-first or fifty-second day being observed as a holy day of obligation.

    1. I wasn’t talking about an obligation. I just found it interesting in light of the above conversation.

  14. It’s the practice in Austria to observe the Monday after Pentecost – I believe it’s still a government holiday, and when I lived there I was told that in former days the faithful packed the church on Pentecost Monday.

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