Monday, 6 June 2011

Perhaps we should also bring back the old Octave of the Ascension?

c14th The Ascension of  Elijah

A commenter on my previous post, Felix, noted that at Mass on Sunday he got the 'Ascension is not a historical event' sermon. 

Having Ascension on the actual day specified in Scripture, rather than moved to the nearest Sunday, would surely help counter this kind of error!  But something else that would surely help is restoration of the old Octave of the Ascension. 

With an Octave, the Mass propers, and perhaps more importantly in this context, the texts at Matins (Office of Readings) all provided the priest with some serious doctrinal foundations on which to draw for his sermons.  Perhaps the problem is in part that, starved of the serious instruction of the older form of the Breviary and ancient calendar, error creeps in to fill the gap!

So I thought I'd post a few of the readings that were set down for this period in the pre-1962 calendar, so you can appreciate the riches that could be restored with a little judicious calendar reform.

Today's readings takes us back to the Old Testament foreshadowing of the Ascension, in Elijah and Enoch.

Sermon of St Gregory on the Gospel of St Mark, set for Matins at Monday in the Octave of Ascension

"So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken unto them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven, where he now sits on the right hand of God. We learn in the Old Testament that Elijah was taken up into heaven. But this word Heaven is used in various senses. For example, it can mean either the terrestrial atmosphere (that is, the aeriel heaven), or something which is not of the sphere of this planet (that is, the ethereal heaven), and of these, the aerial heaven is close to the earth ; whence we speak of the birds flying in the heavens. So has come to pass the belief, that it was only up into this aeriel heaven that Elijah was taken ; that he might thence be carried off suddenly into some part of the earth, to us unknown, and there live in profound peace of body and soul, until the end of the world, when he will return and pay the debt of nature. On this wise, we may say that death waits but is not escaped. But our Redeemer made it not to wait for him, but conquered it, and by rising again shattered it, and by his Ascension shows forth the glory of his resurrection.

We must mark also, how that Elijah was taken up in a chariot, as though to show plainly that for a mere man some outward help was need.ed This help was given to him by Angels, as plainly appeared, since it was impossible for one whom a weak nature yet weighed down earthward, to fly up even into the atmosphere. But of our Redeemer we read not that he was borne up in a chariot, or by Angels, since he, by whom all things were made, clearly rose above all things by his own power from on high. He returned unto him with whom he already was ; and whither he returned, there he hath always been; because, even though in his Manhood he ascended up into heaven, yet in his Godhead, he still comprehended both heaven and earth.

But as the sale of Joseph by his brethren was a type of the sale of Christ, so were the translations of Enoch and Elijah types of Christ's Ascension. Therefore the Lord had, as forerunners and witnesses of his Ascension, the one before the Law, another under the Law, to signify how he himself would one day come, who was able indeed to pass into the heavens. Hence also there is some difference to be observed in the manner wherein each was translated. Enoch was seen no more, for God took him. Elijah was carried up by a whirlwind into heaven. But he that came after them was not taken up, nor carried up, but went up through space by his own power from on high."


Schütz said...

Having Ascension on the actual day specified in Scripture, rather than moved to the nearest Sunday, would surely help counter this kind of error!

Dear Kate,

I am fully supportive of the push to encourage our bishops to return the festival of the Ascension to the Thursday in the 6th Week of Easter. I will post on my own blog at some stage further considerations of this.

But for now, I just want to query your assertion that this date - 40 days after Easter - is "the actual day specified in Scripture" for the Ascension. In doing so, I no more question the "historicity" of the Ascension than I would question the "historicity" of the Resurrection. I'm with you on that. And on the "literal" bodily ascension too, just to be quite sure (which follows from the "literal" bodily resurrection as night follows day).

But to my point:

Our liturgical calendar for the events of the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost follows the timeline in the book of Acts. But we should be aware that there are other "timelines" in Scripture, and in Luke's own Gospel.

To the latter first then. If you closely read Luke 24, you find that he places both the Resurrection and the Ascension (and the appearance of Jesus to Peter and the disciples on the way to Emmaus and to the Eleven) ALL ON THE SAME DAY! Now, I know that rather pushes the "timeline" a bit - as it would require a lot of running around AFTER nightfall (indicated by the Emmaus story), but that is what Luke does. Although he states in his second book that 40 days elapsed between the Resurrection and the Ascension, nevertheless for his own purposes, he closely associates the Ascension with the Resurrection in his Gospel by using this "concertina-ed" timeline. If you like, you could say that he "transferred" the Feast of the Ascension back onto the Feast of the Resurreciton.

Now, if we turn to John's Gospel, we see something similar happening. Of course, we know that John does not include an account of the Ascension - probably because for him the Paschal Event is itself Jesus' "glorification" and "going to the Father". However, he does do something similar to Luke, in that he places a kind of "Pentecost" on the eve of the day of the Resurrection, when Jesus "breathes" upon the Apostles and gives them the Holy Spirit. Of course, if you want to do some kind of "harmony" between the Gospels, you can make a distinction between this outpouring on the apostles and a later outpouring on all the people, but John himself didn't seem to think that such a distinction was necessary. For him, the giving of the Spirit (which Luke says in Acts took place during the Jewish feast of Pentecost - making his own theological point connecting it to the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai) is inextricably linked to the Feast of the Resurrection. For us that would translate into a tight link between baptism and confirmation.

(comment continued... it was too long for a single comment post...)

Schütz said...

(continuation of previous comment, which was too long for one posting)

Now to Matthew, whose Gospel we read yesterday. He obviously knows the Lukan tradition of the Ascension, as he describes what we take to be his account of the "Ascension" in terms very similar to Luke (only he uses a completely different geographical location - Galillee instead of the Mt of Olives - note, however, that there is a slight difference even in the Lukan accounts: Luke's Gospel says they went "as far as Bethany", which is a little bit further on from the Mount of Olives as Luke describes in Acts).

Anyway, Matthew obviously knows the tradition of the Ascension (possibly even knows Luke's account) and plays on the reader's expectation that at the end of this account he expects Matthew to recount Jesus' departure into heaven. BUT - and this is the amazing thing - Matthew choses to end on Jesus' promise "Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age". In other words, Jesus DOESN'T leave his disciples at all, but remains with them.

Now, I am not saying that Matthew's text can be used against the assertion that the Ascension actually happened as Luke described it. In fact, Matthew's account would pack a whole lot less punch if this were the case. He is obviously saying that even though Jesus has ascended into heaven, nevertheless this does not mean that he has left his disciples as "orphans" (as in John's Gospel Jesus says he will not do) but remains really present with them always.

I just offer these reflections as a bit of a caution not to canonise Luke's account in Acts over against the accounts of the other Gospels, including Luke's own Gospel. None of this mitigates against the assertion of the historicity of the Ascension - but there isn't any single "timeline" for the Ascension in Scripture.

And we should not overlook the fact that Luke even recounts (in three separate narratives) the occurance of at least one post-resurrection appearance of Jesus AFTER his Ascension...

Kate said...

David - All of what you have said above merely points to the need to read Scripture in the light of the tradition of the Church and not as a fundamentalist (or a modern exegete!) would, without any context!

Without getting down to the gory details of harmonising the Gospels in relation to the Ascension, the Fathers commentaries suggest that the timelines in the Gospel references to the Ascension, including Luke's, are summaries of the doctrinal content pointing to the Acts account rather meant to be taken as concrete timelines as such (if that weren't the case, it would be pretty bizarre for Luke himself to provide two competing timelines!).

The ancient timelines used in the feasts themselves witness to the historical nature of the event, as I was trying to point out.

Schütz said...

All agreed. Just wanted to avoid any misunderstanding that some of your readers may have taken from what you wrote.