Ascension, Pentecost and Sequences

The last phase of the 50-day season of Easter is marked by the feasts of the Ascension of the Lord and of Pentecost Sunday. Not many years ago the church celebrated the Ascension on the Thursday which fell 40 days after Easter Sunday, thereby taking literally Luke’s account of events in Acts chapter one. In Australia and elsewhere the feast has been moved to the seventh Sunday of Easter.
Originally the Lord’s ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit were celebrated together on the solemnity of Pentecost. It was not until the end of the fourth century that the Ascension became a separate feast from Pentecost. Leo the Great, preaching about the importance of this feast, gives an insight into its meaning which remains relevant today:
‘The Lord’s resurrection filled us with joy on Easter Day; so too his ascension into heaven is the cause of our gladness now, as we commemorate and solemnise the day on which our lowly nature was raised up in Christ above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the height of all the heavenly powers, to the throne of God the Father… Though everything that seemed to move us to due reverence is removed from our sight, our faith remains constant, our hope firm and our charity warm’. (Office of Readings, Easter Week 6, Friday).
As always with prefaces, those for the Ascension and Pentecost reflect the focus of the celebration. The Preface of Pentecost gives clues in the liturgy for understanding the purpose of the feast:
‘Today you sent the Holy Spirit on those marked out to be your children by sharing the life of your only Son, and so you brought the paschal mystery to its completion. Today we celebrate the great beginning of your Church when the Holy Spirit made known to all peoples the one true God, and created from the many languages of man one voice to profess one faith’.
Pentecost Sunday is one of the two celebrations during the year that has an obligatory sequence (Easter is the other). The sequence (from the Latin sequor, ‘to follow’) is a long hymn text which appears after the second reading and before the Gospel acclamation. Originally these musical components extended the final ‘a’ of the Alleluia. They served to embellish and prolong the Gospel procession on high feast days.
Sequences now occur rarely in the liturgy. Their purpose is to provide a sharper focus for important celebrations by uniting those present in reflection on the feast or mystery being celebrated. It is a challenge to liturgy planners to ensure that the sequence is a joyful expression of the festival rather that a long, “dead” time. Perhaps the whole assembly might be invited to join in one of the many sung settings of Veni, Sancte Spiritus (‘Come, Holy Spirit’) at Masses on Pentecost Sunday. Sequences also provide suitable background for some form of liturgical movement, so another ritual possibility is to sing or recite the sequence during the Gospel procession as the book is carried through the assembly in solemn fashion accompanied by candles and incense, culminating in the joyful acclamation: “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia!”


Elizabeth Harrington