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.