Each year as the Easter Season nears its culmination with the Solemnity of Pentecost, the Office for Worship receives a least a couple of phone calls with the same question: “When is the Ascension this year”? This may seem like a simple question; however, if you are paging through a Missalette in the pew or look at the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), you will find that there are two possible answers to this question.
The scriptural reference for the date of the Ascension is found in the Acts of the Apostles (1:3) which reads, “He [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Therefore, beginning with Easter Sunday, the 40th day after the Resurrection falls on Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter.
Since 1999, with the permission of the Vatican, and in accordance with the Canon 1246, §2 of the Code of Canon Law, which states, “The conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See,” most dioceses in the United States, transfer the celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension to the following Sunday, usurping the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
The transference of a solemnity is left to the decision of each Ecclesiastical Province by a two-thirds affirmative votes of the bishops in that province. An ecclesiastical province is essentially a large archdiocese and all the other suffragan dioceses bound to it. In the United States, there’s one ecclesiastical province per state, with a few exceptions. All of the ecclesiastical provinces in the United States have chosen to transfer the celebration expect for Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia and Omaha. With the exception of Omaha, each of these provinces is one of the oldest Catholic provinces in the United States, and perhaps one of the reasons why they choose not to transfer the Ascension to Sunday.
Transferring the Ascension to Sunday is not new. It’s part of a larger trend to transfer other solemnities to the following Sunday. Doing so allows greater exposure and more solemn celebrations among the faithful. In fact, there are two additional solemnities that are usually transferred in the United States for this very reason, but because their transference has been part of our liturgical calendars for so long, many people don’t even realize the solemnities have been transferred at all. The Solemnity of the Epiphany is transferred from Jan. 6, 12 days after Christmas, to the Sunday between Jan. 2-8. And, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, “Corpus Christi,” is moved from Thursday after Trinity Sunday to the following Sunday.
A numbers game?
Let us put aside the transfer of the Ascension to the following Sunday for a moment and remember that on the 40th day after the Resurrection, Christ ascended into Heaven. Since the earliest of times, the Church has celebrated the greatest solemnities by not restricting them to a single day, but by giving them a whole octave of days. In other words, the celebration is spread out for a whole week and renewed on the eighth day. The seven days, completed by the eighth, symbolize the totality of time and its perfection and transcendence into eternity. The week-long celebration also recalls the seven days of creation and is a basic unit of human life.
Easter is known as the “feast of feasts,” making it not only a day, but a season. Every Sunday is both the first day and the eighth day of a week, and is for us a day of rest and peace, but also a sign of hope in our own resurrection on the Last Day. The season of Easter is given both an octave of days, and an octave of weeks – seven times seven days – with the Solemnity of Pentecost on the 50th day after Easter. This rounds out the circle of seven times seven, which signifies our breaking out of subservience to time into the boundless, eternal joy of the children of God.
The 50 days of Easter are an answer to the 40 days of Lent, which is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. In the Old Testament, 40 signified the age of the world. Forty is an intensification of four, which recalls the four corners of the earth and essentially the fallenness of the human race. The 40 days of Lent prepare us for the 50 days of Easter – brokenness to completion – and the Lord’s Resurrection is at the axis of both. Through this arrangement of days, the Church has provided a profound interpretation of what Easter means and how we are to celebrate it.
Considering that 40 prepares us for 50, we can apply this to the Ascension falling on the 40th day in order to prepare us for Pentecost on the 50th day. In addition to the numbers seven, eight, 40 and 50, the number nine is also significant because it is the length of time of a novena. “Novena” comes from the Latin word novem, which means nine, and is a period of nine days of preparation for a feast or other celebration. After the Ascension, there are nine days until Pentecost – the first novena. During these nine days the apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary were waiting for the 50th day, when Christ’s promise to send an Advocate is fulfilled.
Even though our Ecclesiastical Province transfers the Ascension to the following Sunday, marking the 40th day after Easter in our personal lives of faith can help us prepare for the fiftieth. We can do this in small ways by renewing our Easter joy and uniting our hearts with Mary as we prepare for the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit.