The Solemnity of the Ascension: The Feast Who Was Thursday
The sixth week of Easter and the Seventh Sunday of Easter is a liturgical time with a bit of an identity crisis. This week was often referred to as Rogation Week before the revision of the calendar in 1969, and the Solemnity of the Ascension is traditionally celebrated on Thursday. But much of that has changed, or varies depending on where one lives.
Monday through Wednesday before Ascension Thursday marked the traditional minor Rogation days. As I mentioned last week the current General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar which revised the Liturgical Calendar in 1969 did not abandon this liturgical tradition, but dates and celebration of Rogation Days is now determined on the local ordinary or authority.
Thursday will mark forty (40) days after the Resurrection. Depending where you live will determine whether you will celebrate Ascension Thursday or Ascension Sunday. In the United States, only the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha, and Philadelphia continue observing Ascension Thursday as a holy day of obligation. Ecclesiastical provinces usually follow state lines, but some provinces cover more than one state. So 1/5 of the states celebrate Ascension Thursday: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.
I’m not writing to question the pastoral reasons for moving the solemnity to Sunday and removing the obligation, but making the case that if we follow the liturgy of the Church, even if the Ascension is moved to Sunday, we need to observe the Ascension on Thursday in small ways.
Liturgical Traces of the Ascension
Moving the Ascension to Sunday requires some adjusting of the liturgy to have options “before the Ascension” and “after the Ascension.” There is shuffling of Mass propers, readings and a different set of Collect prayers. The Liturgy of the Hours also provides different prayers for before and after the Ascension. But even with all these adjustments, there are “liturgical remnants” that still point to Ascension celebrating on Thursday.
The liturgy from Thursday to Saturday, particularly the readings, reflect the celebration of the Ascension, with Jesus returning to His Father and seated at His right hand. (Since the feast of the Visitation falls this Friday this will not be completely obvious this year.) The Mass readings for the Sixth Week of Easter Sunday through Wednesday refer to the coming of the Paraclete, but Thursday through Saturday refer to the Ascension, with Christ returning to his Father. Some of the passages aren’t speaking of the Ascension outright, but do contain traces:
- The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 47 for the Mass of the Ascension: “God mounts His throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.” The same Psalm 47 is repeated with a different antiphon for Friday and Saturday.
- Alleluia verse on Thursday: “I will not leave you orphans, says the Lord; I will come back to you, and your hearts will rejoice.”
- Gospel Thursday (non-Ascension) from John 16:16: “A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me....’Because I am going to the Father’.”
- Alleluia verse on Friday: “Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead, and so enter into his glory.”
- Alleluia verse and Gospel on Saturday John 16:28: “I came from the Father and have come into the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”
The Liturgy of the Hours also points to the traditional Ascension Thursday:
- Thursday’s Antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah: “In a little while you will no longer see me, says the Lord; then a little while later you will see me again, since I am going to the Father, alleluia.“
- Thursday’s reading from 1 Peter 3:18-22: “He went to heaven is at God’s right hand, with angelic rulers and powers subjected to him.”
- Friday’s Antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah: “Because he suffered death, we see Jesus crowned with glory and honor, alleluia.“
What’s in a Number?
There is also a significance of the number of days found throughout the Bible and Liturgy. Originally the early Church celebrated the fifty (50) days of Easter to Pentecost as a whole. It wasn’t until the fourth century that the fortieth (40th) day was marked by the feast of the Ascension, and then the fiftieth (50th) marked by Pentecost to close the Easter season. Pope Benedict XVI (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) elaborated on the significance of the numbers of seven (7), eight (8), forty (40) and fifty (50) in Seek That Which is Above, pp. 65-67 (emphasis mine):
Since the most ancient times the Church has underlined her great feasts by not restricting them to a single day but giving them a whole octave of days. The celebration resounds for a whole week and is renewed on the eighth day. The seven days, completed by the eighth, symbolize the totality of time and its transcendence into eternity. The week-long feast encompasses a basic unit of human life an thus stands as a foretaste of the freedom of eternal life, a sign of hope and peace in the midst of earthly days in toil. The Church has rendezvoused to help us experience Easter as the feast of feasts, as the basic reason for all celebration and joy, by causing the Easter octave to last for seven times seven days. So the feast of Pentecost on the fiftieth day after Easter is not in fact an entirely new feast; it rounds off the circle of the seven times seven days which signify our breaking out of subservience to time into the boundless joy of the children of God, a joy uninterrupted by any striking of the hour.
These fifty days are the answer to the forty days of tribulation and preparation by which the Church leads up to Easter. In the Old Testament numerology, forty signified the age of the world: it is an intensification of four, which recalls the four corners of the earth and hence the brokenness, the finite, incomplete and toil some nature of all earthly existence. The forty prepare for the fifty, the fragmentary for the complete; and the Lord’s Resurrection is at the axis of both. Even through this temporal arrangement the Church has provided a profound psychological interpretation of what Easter means and of how we can and should celebrate it. For all these things, far from being liturgical games, are translations of the mystery in terms of our life; they are where the unique and once-and-for-all Event meets life in its daily newness.
The Church has continued attaching the significance to the number forty (40). We see it observed during the Lenten Season. And then the General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar states
25. On the fortieth day after Easter the Ascension is celebrated, except in places where, not being a holyday of obligation, it has been transferred to the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
The numeric significance is interrupted when the Ascension is moved to Sunday. Pope Benedict saying “[t]he forty prepare for the fifty” can also apply to the Ascension falling on the fortieth day, with the last days in particular preparing for the fiftieth day, Pentecost. Celebrating on Sunday changes the number to forty-three (43), a prime and non-divisible number, and not particularly symbolic.
The number nine (9) which is used in novenas is also significant. Novena comes from the Latin word novem, meaning of course, nine. These are usually nine days of prayer before an event or feast. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that the number nine signifies “hopeful mourning, of yearning, of prayer.” The very first novena occurred in those days after the Ascension, waiting in prayer in the Upper Room for the Holy Spirit. The apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary were waiting for that fiftieth day. This is the model novena. Novenas have always been been private devotion until the General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar elevated the novena for Pentecost as liturgical:
26. The weekdays after the Ascension until the Saturday before Pentecost inclusive are a preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
This doesn’t specifically mention the number nine or novena, but The Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy reinforces this idea that the Pentecost Novena is already within the liturgy (and needs to be those nine days):
155. The New Testament tells us that during the period between the Ascension and Pentecost “all...joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1, 14) while they awaited being “clothed with the power from on high” (Lk 24, 49). The pious exercise of the Pentecost novena, widely practised among the faithful, emerged from prayerful reflection on this salvific event.
Indeed, this novena is already present in the Missal and in the Liturgy of the Hours, especially in the second vespers of Pentecost: the biblical and eucological texts, in different ways, recall the disciples’ expectation of the Paraclete. Where possible, the Pentecost novena should consist of the solemn celebration of vespers. Where such is not possible, the novena should try to reflect the liturgical themes of the days from Ascension to the Vigil of Pentecost.
So, even if one lives in one of the 40 states which celebrate the Ascension Mass on Sunday, if we are following the Church’s liturgy, our hearts should be focused on the Ascension joy with the whole Church community beginning on Ascension Thursday. The preparation for Pentecost in the form of a novena should begin on Ascension Thursday. The liturgy continues the rejoicing of “mounting his throne” from Thursday until Saturday, and our hearts should be echoing that joy throughout those days, too.
Celebrating the Ascension
Easter ranks as the highest feast of the Church. There are four solemnities that rank right behind Easter: Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension, and Pentecost. The Solemnity of the Ascension can be a holyday of obligation or Sunday, which the Church in Canon Law states our duties:
Can. 1247: On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.
Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.
At first glance, the Ascension would seem to be a sad day. Christ in his human body is leaving the world for the last time. But we need to take our cues from the liturgy. This is a joyful feast; it is the fulfillment of Christ’s salvific mission. The Ascension is the final leg of the Paschal Mystery: Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension into heaven (as mentioned in the Eucharist Prayer of the Mass). It is not until Jesus ascends and returns to His Father that His act of Redemption is completed. Our place in heaven is prepared at this feast—we will now share in Christ’s glory. That is why our hearts should sing with Psalm 47 as it repeats 3 days in a row, “God mounts His throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.”
The Catholic Culture Liturgical Year library has quite a few suggestions on ways to spend the Ascension in prayer and celebration in our domestic Church:
- Ascension Thursday Picnic and Traditions by Florence Berger
- Teaching the Ascension by Helen McLoughlin
- Prayers between Ascension and Pentecost by Helen McLoughlin
- Ascension Thursday Activities by Ethel Marbach (Pochocki)
- Ascension Day: the Final Message from Jesus by P. Stewart Craig
- Pentecost Novena, Focusing on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit by Maria Augusta Trapp
It’s harder for those with jobs or in school, but Ascension Thursday is often celebrated with a picnic, with many people trying to climb the highest heights to imitate the Mount Olivet from where Jesus ascended. Other ways families can focus on the Ascension would be activities requiring air: flying kites, blowing bubbles, balloons, throwing frisbees, etc.
Pentecost food usually includes birds to remind of the symbolic dove of the Holy Spirit, but the Ascension also celebrates with foods like stuffed pigeons or other birds (like chicken) to think of Christ ascending. If you are like me and think a solemnity means dessert, fluffy desserts that are reminders of the “cloud took him from their sight.” Foods that include marshmallows, whipped cream, such as Tiramisu or trifle or a lovely ice cream sundae can be simple treats. The more time consuming can be “puffed” desserts, like Beignets or puff pastry, or a dessert with multiple layers, such as Dobos Torta.
Now is also the time to really intensify praying and/or singing the Regina Caeli. My family is always sad when Easter is over, as we love this prayer. So between the Ascension and Pentecost, we can unite our hearts with Mary and prepare for the Holy Spirit, especially through this prayer.
No matter whether the Solemnity of the Ascension is celebrated on Thursday or Sunday, it is still keeping with the liturgy of the Church to observe the Ascension on Thursday, the fortieth day after Easter. We can do small ways to keep the joy of the Ascension throughout Thursday through Sunday. We also should unite with the Church in imitating the first novena for preparation for Pentecost.