Ascension Thursday is the fortieth day after Easter, the day when Christ led his disciples out as far as Bethany and was taken up into heaven before them. The forty days after Easter clearly mirror the forty days of Lent. That day, that Thursday, has a profound significance.
As a convert to Catholicism, I often have a mildly envious admiration of our students at Wyoming Catholic College. There are many songs that the students have obviously known their whole lives, much as I grew up knowing “Rock of Ages” or “Amazing Grace.” Without effort, they break into “Regina Caeli” or “Salve Regina” during Mass while I wish for a hymnal. Why, you might wonder, have I not learned this traditional music after being in the Church for almost 45 years? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the songs I encountered most often in my first decades as a Catholic were from hymnists like Marty Haugen (“Eye Has Not Seen”) or Dan Schutte (“Here I Am, Lord,” “Glory and Praise to Our God”) or Michael Joncas (“On Eagles’ Wings”), all of these writers more or less my age, all of them affected by the tones of the Age of Aquarius.
Music, though, is a relatively minor part of my envy. What I really missed (which our students have it in their bones) was a way of understanding time in terms of the liturgical year. The Methodism of my childhood had two major yearly celebrations, Easter and Christmas. We did not call them feasts, though we certainly had festive meals on both occasions at our home or at my grandparents’ house in South Carolina or with aunts and uncles. Christ was certainly honored, but there was no sense that the church had laid hold upon time itself outside these two days of intense focus. Christmas had a season, but no Advent calendars and candles preceded it. Easter had its rituals, but there was no Lent. Similarly, I do not remember ever having my serious attention drawn to the Ascension or Pentecost, at least in terms of the special rituals and celebrations that impress children. The Assumption, needless to say, was not recognized at all.
Of course, this disappearance of ritual time has been accelerating for a long time in Catholicism as well. Ascension Thursday, for example, is the fortieth day after Easter, the day when Christ led his disciples out as far as Bethany and was taken up into heaven before them. The forty days after Easter clearly mirror the forty days of Lent. That day, that Thursday, has a profound significance, but in most places, the recognition of the meaning of the Ascension has been postponed until Sunday, when ordinary Catholics might be more likely to show up at Mass. The world of work—that is, by obvious implication, the important world—is not going to suspend its usual activity merely to remember that Jesus ascended into heaven. As Josef Pieper writes in Leisure: the Basis of Culture (which all our students read), “The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.”
Formerly in Christendom, Ascension Thursday would have been a holiday, but in our culture today there will be no memorable departure from everyday life to mark the Son’s triumphant return to the Father, taking human nature, in his Person, into the very Godhead. Even the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, singled out Ascension Thursday as one of the three non-Sunday holy day observances in the year (the others being Good Friday and Christmas). That observance for Methodists dropped away long ago. Will Catholic children remember the Ascension if it falls on a Sunday like any other? Of course not, and so its meaning, given no emphasis by a break in getting and spending, underscored by no rituals of celebration, will be lost, and there will continue, not even what Matthew Arnold calls the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith,” but mere evaporation.
At Wyoming Catholic College, Ascension Thursday is a holiday. This is not a mere gesture toward a bygone custom, but a way of acknowledging what comes first and means most. We do well to remember today what Pieper writes: “Divine worship means the same thing where time is concerned, as the temple where space is concerned. A certain definite space of time is set aside from working hours and days and like the space allotted to the temple, is not used, is withdrawn from all merely utilitarian ends.”
May this day be a participation, in time, in the transcendence of time itself that the Ascension promises.
Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “The Ascension” (1879) by Gustave Doré (1833–1883) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.