Sunday, May 23, 2004

The Ascension Dissension
Okay, so today, Sunday, is Ascension Thursday, at least it is from this particular ecclesiastical territory. But, it is the Seventh Sunday of Easter for the ecclesiastical Provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Washington, and the State of Nebraska. And that's just the Catholic Church in the United States. Whatever! I have no idea what goofy things the bishops of other countries have done with this particular feast. (Have I sufficiently betrayed my leaning on this matter?).

Now I don't pretend to even know some of the reasons why the US bishops have agreed to disagree on this solemnity. I've never checked the record of their debate on the matter; I really don't care -- it won't change my thinking on this particular matter (and since this is not a matter requiring the obedience of faith, I can say the above in all honesty while avoiding silly charges of lack of fidelity or, worse, schism). I imagine one of the reasons floated for the transfer of Ascension Thursday to Sunday was that the work force in the modern world is increasingly unable to have the free time needed to attend various Church services and programs during the week. So, I am sure the bishops view it as a pastoral move to transfer the Ascension to Sunday, so that more of the faithful may be exposed to that particular mystery. Those are laudable concerns.

But I disagree with the resulting decisions of the majority of the bishops in the US. In general, I think it is silly to move solemnities around. And of all the solemnities to move, I disagree most vociferously with this move in particular. Scripture is clear that the time from the Resurrection to the Ascension was a period of forty days. Why mess up that timetable? Furthermore, we lose connection with the sense of a novena when the nine day period properly existing between the Ascension and Pentecost is taken from us. In general, the bishops' transferring to Sunday of certain solemnities that fall on weekdays has, I think, weakened the Catholic sensibility toward the sacred progression of time that is not limited only to Sundays and has removed a long-standing distinguishing mark of the Catholic: they go to Church even when it's not Sunday or Wednesday (Imagine!).

I would think the most obvious criticism of the Ascension's transfer would be that there is now a disparity with Sacred Scripture and its accounting of the Ascension happening forty days after the Resurrection. That objection is noted and convincing. However, an objection that comes to my mind today is something that was running about my head as I celebrated Ascension Masses this weekend. As many of you know, the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) has certain special forms of the prayer used for certain feasts (Christmas, Holy Thursday, Easter, Epiphany, Pentecost, etc.). The Ascension is one of those feasts with a special form (the 'Communicantes'). That special form of the Roman Canon's Communicantes for the Ascension reads: "In union with the whole Church we celebrate that day when your Son, our Lord, took his place with you and raised our frail human nature to glory" (emphasis mine). (This same comment can also be used with other solemnities that have been transfered, which have a special 'communicantes' form). Now I used the Roman Canon and the special form for all of my Masses this weekend. But as I prayed that, darting about in my head, was the obvious objection that, NO, in fact, WE (in this ecclesiastical Province and many others in the US) ARE NOT in union with the whole Church on this matter's celebration. And there are so many other objections to this silly transfer. It really bugs me.

Only in the Church could a Thursday fall on a Sunday!

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