FEAST OF THE ASCENSION Link to USCCB all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.
And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you;
but stay in the city
until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany,
raised his hands, and blessed them.
As he blessed them he parted from them
and was taken up to heaven.
They did him homage
and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
and they were continually in the temple praising God.
The setting and history of the Feast of the Ascension has been the cause of considerable discussion in recent decades, not least because for many centuries the feast was known as Ascension Thursday and celebrated precisely forty days after the Resurrection. The only biblical source for a forty-day period between the Resurrection and the Ascension is Acts 1:3, which happens to be this coming Sunday’s first reading. In truth, the Gospels are not as specific. Most Gospels describe an Ascension or departure of Jesus sometime after the Resurrection, though John’s text strongly suggests that the Ascension occurred on Easter Sunday. The USCCB has an interesting comment on John 20 here.
There was further debate in the United States when permission was granted by the Vatican for regions of the Church in the United States to celebrate the feast on the Seventh Sunday of Easter instead of Thursday. The USCCB requested this permission because of poor attendance on Ascension Thursday, a week day. Only a handful of regions opted not to make the change; if my memory is correct only New York City, Boston, Hartford, Newark, Philadelphia, and Omaha observe the feast on Thursday. There is an old joke that some bishops objected to the change to Sunday because of the loss of the extra weekday collection. But in truth, aside from custom, there is no compelling Biblical or theological reason to celebrate the fast on Thursday.
A more important question is the nature of the feast—what is the meaning, and perhaps even more to the point, what are the implications for us, the living? Adolf Adam, in The Liturgical Year (1990), describes the feast as an observance of the return of Christ to his Father and his place at the right hand, while at the same time celebrating his abiding presence with us. This is best understood if we consider the early Church practice of celebrating the Ascension and Pentecost as one feast, an exchange of the early Jesus for the abiding Holy Spirit. A number of sermons from St. Augustine of this “combined feast” survive to this day. In Sunday’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus states his promise of sending the Father upon them (through the Spirit) just as he rises from their sight.
The Gospels for the Feast of the Ascension are drawn from the year’s Cycle, and we are rejoined to Year C’s Gospel of St. Luke. There are some interesting points in this text; for example, Jesus engages in virtually the same instruction he provided the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, a text that precedes this reading in Luke’s narrative. Luke includes a theme that John has emphasized over the past few Sundays, that Jesus must leave in order for the Spirit to empower the disciples to do their work.
Scholars today are in general agreement that Luke’s Acts of the Apostles was intended as the second half of his Gospel—a description of how the work of the Lord Jesus would prosper under the missionary efforts of the Spirit-filled apostles. The first reading of Sunday’s Gospel is in fact the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, and it includes a more detailed account of the Ascension and Jesus’ final instructions than we see in the Gospel itself. In the Acts account, the disciples ask if now is the moment when Jesus will return the kingdom to Israel.
In the Gospel account, there is no mention of any questions from the disciples. In Acts, though, the disciples do speak, and they ask a peculiar question about the future that that is not precisely in sync with what Jesus has been conveying to them. (There is a faint parallel between the Acts narrative and the Emmaus confusion.) Throughout, Jesus has counseled them to prepare for the Paraclete or the Holy Spirit, a moment when they will be clothed “in power from on high.” In the Gospel, they seem to get some sense of this, as they return of their own accord in joy to worship profoundly in the temple. In Acts, though, there is a sense of forlornness, and it takes two mysterious men in white to reorient the disciples from the sky to the realities of the ground. I believe that in Acts Luke may be describing something of the early Church’s coming to grasp with the nature of the Spirit and how Jesus would remain present through that Spirit and the Spirit-inspired works the Church would soon undertake.
After the liturgical feast of the Ascension the daily Mass readings and Liturgy of the Hours will turn to the coming feast of Pentecost, on the following Sunday (May 8). Pentecost will mark the end of the Easter Season, specifically with the observance of Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours that Sunday evening. And, those of you of a certain age will remember that the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week (the three weekdays before Ascension Thursday) were observed as Rogation Days, prayers of penance and petition marked by a procession of the litany of the saints. This colorful observance can be traced back to a Roman goddess named Robigus or Robigo, Latin for “rust” or “mildew.” Although the Church divested itself from the pagan roots, the observance of a procession through the fields—to ward off mildew and other crop vulnerabilities—was very popular, and later expanded as prayer to ward off earthquake and calamities.
For those of you in Omaha, next Sunday is the Seventh Sunday of Easter and the day after tomorrow is your Holy Day. What happens if you happen to be in Orlando on Thursday and Omaha on Sunday? Where is your obligation? In 2001 I flew from Orlando on Thursday to Boston for the weekend and literally lost the feast…the lesser of many of my problems on judgement day, I assure you.