Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Feast of the Ascension—why a much neglected Festival?

Please keep it this year on May 17!

If there is one feast of the Incarnate Son of God that is most seriously undervalued and under-celebrated it is the Ascension of the Lord Jesus.

Until recently Christians in western Europe could not forget the annual Festival of the Ascension of the Lord Jesus because the "holy Thursday." forty days after Easter Day, was a public holiday—at least for government institutions and the schools. In church schools it was a holiday for most of the day after the celebration of the Ascension first thing in the morning (and this practice was also sometimes the case over the Atlantic in R C schools in the U.S.A.).

In the U.S.A. the Ascension Day has never been a public holiday and, further, since it has been transferred in recent times by most R. C. parishes to the Sunday following, the largest denomination in the country no longer clearly and unambiguously sets an example of celebrating the Ascension of Jesus on the fortieth day! This is contrast to the Church in the West—at least from the fifth to the twentieth century—where this Festival has been seen of strategic Christological and soteriological importance.

There is also a reason why some Christians—especially modern Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists—pay little attention to this Festival. The word "Easter" has been stretched in meaning to cover not only Easter Day and the week following, but the so-called "great fifty days" from Easter Day to the Day of Pentecost, and the Sundays between are called "Sunday of Easter" rather than "Sundays after Easter." One direct implication of this (for the West) new arrangement is that the event of the fortieth day is made into just another resurrection appearance—and this is seen in the fact that the Pascal Candle (which was always extinguished on the 40 th day after the reading of the Epistle and Gospel which proclaimed the ascension of Jesus) is now usually kept lit until Pentecost. In other words, the Ascension has got lost in the "great fifty days" and is rarely seen within them.

Obviously, looking at this more generally, it is easier to believe that Jesus just spiritually moved from the "seen" to the "unseen" without any specific bodily transfiguration, than to see him actually raised from earth into a luminous cloud of glory in the sight of the apostles on the fortieth day.. That is, there are all kinds of pressures from the modern Zeitgeist to negate the account in Acts 1:11 as a literal account and make it into a kind of metaphor of what happened to Jesus.

Surely we have now reached the time in the use of modern liturgies, lectionaries and calendars, and the various theories behind them, to ask whether the negating and dumbing down of the Festival of the Ascension of Jesus is a sin against God and against the people of God. The biblical narrative of the Ascension is at the end of Luke's first book and at the beginning of his second (Luke-Acts) and the fact of the Ascension is assumed and proclaimed in many places and ways in the New Testament and in the Collects, Litanies and Hymns of the Church through time.

I do heartily commend the prayerful study of the Collect, Epistle and Gospel for both Ascension Day and the Sunday after in the classic Book of Common Prayer.

P.S. I fear that this year the secular festival of Mother's Day on May 13th will also serve to eclipse the Christian festival of the Ascension of Jesus

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