On Not Celebrating the Ascension

Catholics in England and Wales do not celebrate the Ascension today but on Sunday, 12 May. I have never yet met anyone who is enthusiastic about this change or who is convinced by the reasons given for it, but, loyal chaps and chapesses that we are, we ‘tolerate it’ (older readers will get the wry allusion to Vatican texts which may be lost on anyone under 30). Here in the monastery we do our annual juggling act with readings, antiphons and collects for the Divine Office, so that we do not anticipate the feast. The nine days of prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit (the original novena) are, of course, foreshortened, but by Monday we should be in step with other Western Christians and can march confidently towards Pentecost, the great feast of the Church. Does it matter? I think it does.

Once we destroy the traditional rhythms of the liturgical cycle — the day, the 7 days, the 8 days, the 40 days, the 50 days — and substitute those of our own making, we are saying something important about the way in which we view the world and our place in it. We are saying, in effect, that God is less important than our convenience; that we have created a world into which He has to be fitted, rather than the other way round. Instead of seeing things as a gift from God, we view them as life-style choices. We are at the centre, not God.

Visitors to the monastery are sometimes surprised to find that we continue to say all 150 psalms of the psalter during the course of the week. Wouldn’t it be better, they say seductively, to go for quality rather than quantity? They forget that the psalter is already a unity, and that the Benedictine rhythm of prayer allows for longuers and difficulties. We say the cursing psalms which others are too nice to utter; we let ourselves be bored with the repetitions, mouth the valedictions on our enemies and generally stand with the poor man, acknowledging our collective as well as individual sinfulness. We pray the psalms with and in Christ, which is the whole point. I think it is also the point about our liturgical celebrations generally.

It saddens me that East and West do not always celebrate Easter on the same date; it saddens me that Christians in England and Wales do not celebrate some of the greatest feasts of the year on the same date. We need to recover the wholeness of our celebrations. I, for one, am praying that our bishops will indeed reconsider, as they have promised to do, the dates on which we celebrate some of these feasts. We may not be able to reconcile the differences between followers of the Julian and Gregorian calendars, but surely we can do something about today’s great feast — or rather, what would have been today’s great feast were we not bidden to celebrate it on Sunday.


13 thoughts on “On Not Celebrating the Ascension”

  1. I will be attending Holy Communion for Ascension Day this morning. And I tend to agree with you that changing the rhythms or patterns of seasonal events does interrupt how we experience the church year.

    Canterbury Diocese is celebrating the Novena of Prayer for the nine days to Pentecost. We each have a lovely resource to help our prayers, which we are encouraged to pass on to others, who may not be regular church goers. Mission with a small m.

    There are some downloadable resources here:

  2. I used to HATE this when I was a Catholic in the Netherlands! No longer my problem (well, the Julian and Gregorian bit is) but I think that you state the problem very well indeed!

    I’ve also had the experience in the past couple of years of having a job (now over) which made it a major struggle to get to services on Great Feasts (particular when one is on a different calendar to the western one, although the western Ascension day is no longer a public holiday around here, so that works for everyone) so I understand the arguments about “pastoral needs” and pragmatics. But even then, that is not a good enough reason to “flatten” the liturgical year. I would rather not get to Liturgy than substitute liturgical time with any other sort of time!

    • Oops, just realised I was mixed up – the Dutch do keep it on the proper day (in fact it was even a public holiday) it was somewhere else (and/or another feast) I was thinking of! Mea culpa, but the point still holds.

  3. Makes me sad for school children. One of my highlights was the half holiday from school on Ascension Day. In my first school year Ascension coincided with my birthday and I felt the feast and more especially at that time the half holiday was for me! In later years I spent many happy chapel hours searching the Golden Rule in BCP to find out if and when it would happen again.

  4. Like you, I have never met anyone, priest, religious or lay, who did not regret the loss of our Holy Days and fervently long for them to be restored. I get so cross when I hear the excuse made that mid-week Holy Days are inappropriate because they are not public holidays in this country – as if Corpus Christi had been plonked down on a Thursday just because it was early closing day in the Campo de’ Fiori, instead of the day of the institution of the Eucharist.

    I think you are right that such tinkering betrays a misunderstanding of our relationship with God; it suggests that our time is much more valuable than his. It also robs us of regular opportunities for communal acts of public witness to our faith.

    Do all Benedictines keep to the old psalter, or is it just your community? I also regret the sanitisation of the cursing psalms, as if there were some emotions that it is ‘not nice’ to express to God. I wonder if there is a person alive who has not felt, at one time or another, the emotions expressed in vv. 7-9 of Psalm 137, and I wonder how, if we are not honest with God about such feelings, we are to be healed of them.

  5. I am happy to report that Ascension Thursday is on Thursday in France. We celebrated Mass with the Carmelites at Le Broussey, Rions.
    Sadly the music was banal but the Feast was kept.

  6. In my region of Canada the feast has been moved to Sunday. While I agree it would be more meaningful to observe on the actual day, it is logistically impossible in my parish. On Sundays we have 5 Masses, all full. Imagine attempting to accommodate so great a number of faithful in one evening Mass? In theory we have a right to take a day off work (without pay) for religious reasons, but in practice it is another matter depending on one’s employer.

  7. At our (Orthodox) parish, we generally have a midnight Liturgy when some major feast – Annunciation, Ascension, etc. – falls on a weekday. A lot of folks would find it difficult to take off work for a weekday-morning service, so we just sacrifice a few hours of sleep instead and keep the observation on the proper day. Is making sacrifices (of time, convenience, whatever) out of fashion these days?

  8. Yesterday I was told that in Holland, today, Ascension Day, is officially a Sunday. They do not move the day but they treat it as a Sabbath.

    Most places it is a compromise between those who know and celebrate the Ascension, those who would forget about it and those for whom their work does not make it easy if it is not on a Sunday.

  9. It is not really fair to blame the bishops of England and Wales for the situation in those countries, and the same may be true in other countries (for example, most but not all of the USA moved the feast to the following Sunday years ago). The E&W hierarchy took extensive advice from priests and liturgical commissions all over the country concerning attendance trends on the Thursday and attitudes to the feast, and what the bishops wanted was (a) to promote the celebration of the feast but at the same time (b) to avoid laying guilt on people who simply could not easily get to Mass on the Thursday. (The same kind of considerations were also applied to Epiphany and Corpus Christi, the other two major feasts of the Lord.)

    What the bishops therefore decided to do was leave the celebration of Ascension where it was on the Thursday but remove the obligation. Rome, however, refused to allow them to do that, so if blame is to be directed at anyone, the Congregation for Divine Worship is where it should go.

    It appears that the E&W bishops are revisiting the question, so it may be that a return to the former situation will be the result.

    I note that in France, the practice in many churches seems to be have the Ascension Mass both on the Thursday and the following Sunday, thus keeping everyone happy!

  10. I can only add that it saddens me that school holidays are being rationalised which means that children will have end of term breaks rather than Whit/Easter holidays. The dates may or may not match the feasts/holy days. The whole character of Holy Week was altered this year as my children were in school until Thursday. I know Easter always gave schools an odd term pattern but as has been said the rhythm and cycle gives things a certain feel. We remember/respond to it and it meaning is absorbed/added to over the years. Slotting things around work patterns removes this feeling and makes the event slightly less perceptible. A shame, as we respond so deeply to time, rhythm and pattern. They were not given to us to plan work rosters.

  11. We celebrated Ascension Day yesterday at All Saints and I realise how much I value the fact that it hasn’t been moved to Sunday – in my ignorance I hadn’t realised that others might not have been celebrating at the same time! Pattif put it very well… making Feasts ‘fit in ‘ to our busy schedules is the wrong way round – God gets more and more squashed in between other ‘stuff’… and is in danger of becoming thought of as rather ‘inconvenient’!

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