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A modest wondering about the Feast of the Ascension

An image of the Ascension from Vanderbilt's Art in the Christian Tradition Project.The Anglican Church of Canada has seven principal feasts. Can you name them all, real quick? Christmas and Easter leap to mind; Epiphany and Pentecost may follow without too much thought. Trinity Sunday , All Saints’ Day, and Ascension Day lag a little behind in the memory palace.

One thing I find interesting about this list is that all but two are on Sundays, or can be celebrated on Sundays. Easter? Always a Sunday. So too Pentecost. Trinity Sunday, rather a give-away. Our calendar notes that “All Saints’ Day may be observed on the Sunday following 1 November, in addition to its observance on the fixed date,”  and that the “feast of the Epiphany may be observed on the Sunday before 6 January” if the sixth falls on a weekday. That leaves just two on fixed, immovable days. The twenty-fifth of December is indelibly marked as Christmas Day, and so many Anglicans attend church—well, or quite late the night before.

Left in the dust is the feast that we’ll keep next Thursday, May 29, 2014. The feast of the Ascension, commemorating the moment that Jesus ascends into heaven, having reassured the disciples that this is necessary and that he’ll send the Holy Spirit. Some of our Orthodox sisters and brothers refer to this feast as the ‘culmination of salvation’—and yet, it’s often overlooked. Happening forty days after Easter, it always falls on the Thursday before the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

I wonder if it’s time for us as Canadian Anglicans to ask some serious questions about how we keep this principal feast. Attendance at weekday Eucharists is on the wane in many places. Given that there’s provision to keep two of the other feasts that aren’t necessarily Sundays on a Sunday before or after—is it time to wonder the same about Ascension Day?

There are problems with such a proposal. One is that moving it to the Sunday before or after its actual date, we’d lose a significant chunk of the Easter reading cycles of the Revised Common Lectionary. Moreover, if we move it to the Sunday after, we would have three principal feasts on three successive Sundays: Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, crammed together like Timbits in a box. But if we don’t do something, even with teaching about it, is it really a principal feast if it’s observed by so few people?

I’ve found myself musing about transferring Ascension to the Sunday after every other year. Though complicated, it has a useful pattern to it. If we started that next year, we’d see the following:

2014: Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A)
2015: Ascension
2016: Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year C)
2017: Ascension
2018: Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year B)
2019: Ascension

…and then the pattern repeats in 2020 and following. Over the course of six years, we would hear the fixed Ascension readings three times, and hear each of the year A, B, and C readings on the other three years. We lose less, and I think we gain more.

Perhaps, in addition to wrestling with how to make the spiritual significance of the feast accessible, and reveal the good news of God at work in post-Copernican times, it’s time to change this aspect of our shared calendar.

Matthew Griffin

About Matthew Griffin

I’m a priest serving in the Diocese of Niagara, with both a pastoral and an academic interest in the relationship between liturgy and theology. I enjoy reading, cooking, and spending time with my beloved and our young son.

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19 Responses to A modest wondering about the Feast of the Ascension

  1. What if parishes treated weekday services as an opportunity for community over a meal, for the high feasts like this one, rather than the bus stop between sundays? I think we need some better language around understanding people’s conception of sabbath and how that isnt often the Christian sunday as it once was. We do a disservice to those for whom sunday isnt sabbath (because of work et.al) when we try and focus things into a sunday lens again.

  2. Move it to the following Sunday. We’ve been doing that in our church for years.

  3. I wouldn’t give up altogether on encouraging people to come out on a weekday (potlucks are a good draw). But for those who can’t contemplate that, the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter are effectively Easter-Ascension readings anyway.

    • Hi Matthew – I wonder about the relevance of this throwaway sentence –

      “Attendance at weekday Eucharists is on the wane in many places.”

      How does / should declining attendance affect our celebration of the Ascension?

      I don’t know why I’m hung up on it, but surely part of the answer is catechesis. Does the average parishioner knowing about the ascension? Does the average priest teach on it.

      Surely such teaching should not be restricted to a few readings and a short homily. We need to dig deeper with who we have rather than worrying about who is not there.

  4. I said in a previous posting that it’s just too hard for many of us folks who work 9-5 (or indeed anytime) to make a noon-time service, just due to time constraints. Some us only get half hour breaks, and even those with one hour, may have a commute to even get to Church. A combined service/lunch would be great, and as for Ascension, better to move it to a day (e.g. a Sunday) where it can be marked than keep it on a weekday where it will go unnoticed by the vast majority of followers. /2cents

  5. Continue to honour God by celebrating it. Offer evening services.

  6. Growing up we recognised all the principal feasts and some of the less principal ones in an assortment of ways. Either at our church, or a neighbouring one in town (or the next town over).

    In my youth, it was a great thrill to be taken out of school for the day to participate in liturgies and activities at the church. My mom would usually take the day off work to volunteer or attend the adult program. As I get older, I really appreciate those days for more than a day away from my English teacher. It was a time to celebrate community with those young people who I got to see a few times a year and some I saw every Sunday.

    It was sad as I got older, fewer parents were willing to write the letters to the principals of the schools saying they were taking their kids from school for religious observances. But the evenings were always spent with the parish family. Nothing better than growing up Anglo-Catholic.

  7. Some of my most moving church services have been in groups of less than 10 people. Not everyone wants to attend a large congregation. Observe Ascension Day on the day and whether 5 or 50 people show up, God is still glorified by the worshiping community.

  8. I’m in favour of both the idea of having midweek services around meals and celebrating on the following Sundays. This would be in keeping with the way we do Passion/Palm Sunday, as well as having Good Friday services.

  9. Come to St. Thomas’s, Huron St. at 6:15 on May 29. There will be dinner following.

  10. Theologically, Ascension seems like the ugly sibling out of the principal feasts, it either is seen as an extension of Easter, (because the Ascension is a lesser mystery than the Resurrection) or it anticipates Pentecost (most sermons on the Sunday after Ascension I heard talk about the theme of waiting for the Spirit). Ascension seems not to mention much merit in itself. One thing to reflect on Ascension is the notion of the absence of Christ. For many people, Christ seems more absent than present, especially in times of suffering and trial. Ascension Day could be an opportunity to reflect honestly with the concept of the absence of Christ while paradoxically embracing the mystery that Christ’s absence is itself an invitation to his Presence.

  11. Transferring Ascension to a Sunday is an interesting idea, but I’m hesitant for a few reasons: it would blur the symbolism of the 40 days after Easter-something that isn’t as much of a problem with All Saints, keeping it on Thursday has the backing of Tradition (capital-T), and above all it seems like a concession to the fact that people who are too busy/can’t be bothered to drag themselves out to church on a day besides Sunday. I guess that last one is simply the culture: both our too-busy culture and the fact that the Ascension simply doesn’t have the cultural weight to get people out to church mid-week the way Christmas and Holy Week do.

  12. To my mind, this is a conversation about how we ratchet up the accessibility of Ascension Day to the average person in the pew. Is a pot-luck dinner on a Thursday going to do that? Seems pretty Maundy Thursday to me, without the richness of symbolic action and sacrament.

    I would be drawn to a service that has the potential to transform me – but as a faith community I don’t think we’ve understood the Feast of the Ascension in such a way. What is it about anyway, and how does it give meaning and purpose to my journey today?

    Seems like a Sunday pattern might offer an opportunity to do that and in a way that is probably more accessible for most folks. Sure, celebrate it midweek too with 5-20 people; but I think in doing so (barring some amazing new draw to the observance) the Feast loses some of it’s Principal magnificence. It’s not about numbers, but Feast Days such as this tend to thrive when energy and passion and inspiration intermingle with God’s grace. And these days that seems like a Sunday morning kinda thing.

  13. My biggest issue is that it falls on Thursday when I’m working — if it fell on a Sunday or a Saturday, I could get there. Oh well, that’s it, we can’t change the church calendar, and I am surely grateful to have a job I love.

  14. We celebrated it yesterday . Holding a mid week service is not feasible few attendees
    in an greying parish. I wouls suggest celebrating onn the Sunday closest to the day.

  15. Although I concur with much of what you have said, I would ask that you be mindful of the fact that General Synod has designated the 7th Sunday after Easter as that Sunday on which we celebrate Jerusalem Sunday.
    For more information please refer to: http://www.anglican.ca/gr/provinces/jerusalem/sunday/

    • Matthew Griffin

      Hi Patricia,

      You’re quite correct–this piece from three years ago was written and published after General Synod passed a motion in 2013 establishing Jerusalem Sunday.
      I don’t think I see a reason why it wouldn’t work for the two to be coincident, especially given the gospel reading for the feast of the Ascension, Luke 24.44-53. For those without a bible close at hand, here’s a couple of verses from the middle: ‘and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ (46-47) I could imagine that being a great jumping-off point.

  16. Thank you Matthew I simply did not want other readers to think that this Sunday had not been designated as Jerusalem Sunday.
    And yes of course speaking about the Ascension is inevitable especially seeing as the lesson from Acts is almost identical.
    As to celebrating Holy Thursday as a feast day on the Sunday designated as Jerusalem Sunday I think it puts too much on one plate. No doubt this is a matter of opinion. I wonder how General Synod would react to such a petition?
    As ever,

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