|Bamberg Apocalypse, c11th|
Today is, traditionally, the feast of the Ascension, an event that occurred forty days after the Resurrection, as Acts 1 reminds us:
The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, of all things which Jesus began to do and to teach, Until the day on which, giving commandments by the Holy Ghost to the apostles whom he had chosen, he was taken up. To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion, by many proofs, for forty days appearing to them, and speaking of the kingdom of God.
And eating together with them, he commanded them, that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but should wait for the promise of the Father, which you have heard (saith he) by my mouth. For John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost, not many days hence.They therefore who were come together, asked him, saying: Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? But he said to them: It is not for you to know the times or moments, which the Father hath put in his own power: But you shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you, and you shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth.
And when he had said these things, while they looked on, he was raised up: and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were beholding him going up to heaven, behold two men stood by them in white garments. Who also said: Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, as you have seen him going into heaven.
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount that is called Olivet, which is nigh Jerusalem, within a sabbath day' s journey. And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James of Alpheus, and Simon Zelotes, and Jude the brother of James. All these were persevering with one mind in prayer with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.Ascension Thursday on Sunday!
Yet for some strange reason, which I can't help but think is really about clerical convenience (because why should priests have to celebrate more than one Mass a day, or rearrange their schedules to put on Mass at a time convenient to the people rather than them?), it is actually celebrated in most parishes on Sunday instead these days.
This seems to me to be a classic example of what is currently being described by some as the operation of the 'church of the ordained' rather than 'the baptised'.
Because what the baptised - clerical, religious and lay alike - surely really need most is help to fight off the forces of secularism in our world, help to consecrate our time and space to Christ.
We need feasts like the Ascension breaking in and disrupting our day to day lives and calling us back to fidelity and mission.
The importance of sacred time
Much of the formation of the liturgical calendar, the process of the Christianisation of time, seems to have occurred, or at least been codified, in the fifth century, and the Divine Office readings for today (in the traditional form) reflect that, with Pope Leo the Great (c400-461) reminding us that:
After the blessed and glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, wherein the Divine Power raised up in three days the true Temple of God Which the iniquity of the Jews had destroyed God was pleased to ordain, by His Most Sacred Will, and in His Providence for our instruction and the profit of our souls, a season of forty days which season, dearly beloved brethren, doth end on this day. During that season the bodily Presence of the Lord still lingered on earth, that the reality of the fact of His having risen again from the dead might be armed with all needful proofs.The number of days, in other words, is important.
It mirrors for us the forty days of preparation before the commencement of Christ's ministry, of fasting in the desert, which we remember in Lent each year.
It connects us to several Old Testament events that foreshadowed the coming of Christ, such as Moses' forty days on Mount Sion with God, receiving the law.
And it foreshadowed the final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, some forty years after the crucifixion.
A feast of mission
How ironic then, that this great feast above all, which especially remembers the commissioning of the apostles to go out and evangelise the world, should be subsumed into a Sunday and thus downgraded! Here, as a reminder, is the Gospel for the Mass of the feast today, from St Mark 16:
At length he appeared to the eleven as they were at table: and he upbraided them with their incredulity and hardness of heart, because they did not believe them who had seen him after he was risen again. And he said to them: Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned. And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name they shall cast out devils: they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover. And the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God. But they going forth preached everywhere: the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed.But perhaps our hierarchy are too busy planning their annual Ramadan parties Iftar meals to be bothered actually proclaiming the Gospel?
Nor are so-called Concerned Catholics, concerned primarily about power rather anything else as far as I can see, any closer, in my view, to a prescription for the recovery of the Church. I'm not disputing that there is a need for much greater accountability and transparency on the part of the hierarchy.
But it is simply naive to think that having more women in positions of power will change anything, and creating new structures will surely just entrench a new group of people in positions of power rather than necessarily changing behaviours fundamentally.
Recovering our Church
Rather, if we truly want to return to being a 'church for the baptised' we need to focus on recovering a genuinely Catholic morality and spirituality, and the most important dimension of that is through the liturgy.
The sanctification of time and space, including through the cycle of feasts, is an important part of that.
So perhaps, rather than providing free publicity to other religions by hosting Iftar dinners, the bishops could this year instead devote the time to considering the restoration of symbols that were once equally important to Catholics, such as Friday abstinence, a genuine Eucharistic fast, and an actual Lenten fast.
Perhaps so-called 'Concerned Catholics', instead of trying to carve out positions of power for themselves could give consideration to how to make their parishes genuinely engaging places for seekers to come into, not least by persuading their priest to resacralise the liturgy rather than imposing themselves on it.
And perhaps all of us, even if we can't find or get to a Mass that is actually celebrating the Ascension today (ie an EF Mass), could try and find some way of commemorating the day, perhaps by saying Vespers of the feast as a devotion, for example using this helpful ap.