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The Feast of the Ascension
Not many years ago we celebrated the Ascension of the Lord on a Thursday, forty days after Easter Sunday. It has since been moved in Australia and elsewhere to the 7th Sunday of Easter.
In marking the ascension on the fortieth day of the Easter season, the church took literally Luke’s account of events in Acts 1:3. Liturgical history indicates that the Lord’s ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit were originally 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.
Celebrating the Ascension on a Sunday of Eastertime helps give this solemnity its rightful orientation. The Ascension is not a farewell nor a time of sadness at Jesus’ departure from this world. The earlier practice of extinguishing the paschal candle on this day is therefore quite inappropriate. Like every Christian festival, the Ascension celebrates the on-going presence of the risen Christ in our midst.
As always the readings and prayers of the Mass help us find the focus of this special day.
The first reading is from Luke’s prologue to the book of Acts. Just as Jesus travelled to Jerusalem to his passion and death, so the Church will take the Good News out to the world, beginning in Jerusalem and reaching to the ends of the earth. The Gospel reading from Matthew reassures the followers of Christ that, although Jesus is no longer physically present, he is with them even to the end of time.
The Preface of the Ascension I provides a rich insight into the meaning of the feast:
Christ the mediator between God and the human race,judge of the world and Lord of all,has passed beyond our sight,not to abandon us but to be our hope.Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church;where he has gone, we hope to follow.
What we celebrate is not just a past event or the hope of our own glorious future destiny but the life we share now with the risen Lord.
In Australia the Ascension marks the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This is a special opportunity for Christians to gather in their local communities for worship, to pray for the unity of the Churches, and to explore options for ongoing local ecumenical commitment.