An excerpt from an article I wrote for The Wanderer, to which you may subscribe in print and in an online version:
We know with holy and Catholic Faith that what was not assumed, was not redeemed (St. Gregory of Nazianzus – +389/90). Our humanity, body and soul, was taken by the Son into an unbreakable bond with His divinity. When Christ rose from the tomb, our humanity rose in Him. When He ascended to heaven, so also did we ascend. In Christ, our humanity now sits at the Father’s right hand. His presence there is our great promise and hope here. It is already fulfilled, but not yet in its fullness. That hope informs our trials in this life.
Be clear. Not only Christ’s humanity but our humanity ascended into heaven. Preaching on 1 June 444 St. Leo I, “the Great” (+461) taught (my emphasis), “Truly it was a great and indescribable source of rejoicing when, in the sight of the heavenly multitudes, the nature of our human race ascended over the dignity of all heavenly creatures, to pass the angelic orders and to be raised beyond the heights of archangels. In its ascension it did not stop at any other height until this same nature was received at the seat of the eternal Father, to be associated on the throne of the glory of that One to whose nature it was joined in the Son.”
Leo says in another sermon of 17 May 445, “This Faith, reinforced by the Ascension of the Lord and strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit, has not been terrified by chains, by prison, by exile, by hunger, by fire, by the mangling of wild beasts, nor by sharp suffering from the cruelty of persecutors. Throughout the world, not only men but also women, not just immature boys but also tender virgins, have struggled on behalf of this Faith even to the shedding of their blood. This Faith has cast out demons, driven away sicknesses, and raised the dead.”
The liturgical celebration of Ascension by the Latin Church has become a little confused in recent years. In the post-Conciliar calendar used with the Novus Ordo editions of the Missale Romanum for this Sunday we ought to be observing the 7th Sunday of Easter. Ascension Thursday was a few days back, appropriate on Thursday. However, by the same logical that dislocated Epiphany from its proper place twelve days after Christmas (“Twelfth Night”), some years ago the Holy See allowed conferences of bishops to transfer the celebration of Ascension Thursday to the following Sunday. I call this liturgical quirk “Ascension Thursday Sunday”.
Those who are participating at Holy Mass with the 1962MR avoid this folderol.
Folks, I know the argument. The bishops hope to expose more people to the mystery of the Ascension of the Lord. Because it is too hard to go to Mass also on Thursday, they moved the feast to Sunday. Well… in most places they moved it to Sunday. What is even more confusing is that it isn’t transferred in some dioceses. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law c. 1246, Ascension Thursday is indicated as one of the few Holy Days of Obligation. Again, I know the laudable reason for moving the feast. However, perhaps it is the influence of reading so much St. Augustine over the years, but my present view of human nature suggests to me that when Holy Mother Church’s pastors lower expectations regarding the liturgy, people get the hint: it just isn’t that important. Maybe none of it is important. Thus, I am left with the opinion that the option to dislocate such an important and ancient feast is an arrogant novelty.
The celebration of Ascension on a particular Thursday is rooted in Scripture and reflects the ancient practice of the Church in East and West alike. We read in Holy Scripture that nine days, not six, intervened between the Lord’s physical ascent to the Father’s right hand and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Ascension Thursday was fixed at the 40th day after Easter from about the end of the 4th century. In the Latin West, St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) called it Quadragesima (“fortieth”) Ascensionis. In the Greek East, St. Gregory of Nyssa spoke of it in 388. That’s only a 16 century tradition. Eastern Christians haven’t transferred Ascension.
What must the Easterners think of us Latins?
But let’s be more positive. With the third, 2002 edition of the Missale Romanum we have once again a Mass for the Vigil of Ascension. This wasn’t in the 1970 or 1975 editions. Moreover, there are now proper Masses for the days (nine? six?) after Ascension until Pentecost, most having alternative collects depending on whether or not in that region Ascension is transferred to Sunday. As I mentioned last week, in the new printing of the 3rd edition there will also be an option for a longer celebration of the Vigil of Pentecost, in keeping with the ancient use similar to the Vigil of Easter, with various readings. There is a parallel between Easter and Pentecost for the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, which in the Latin Church were of old conferred in the same rite.
Drop to your knees and thank God for Pope Benedict and the provisions by which he liberated the use also of the pre-Conciliar liturgy through Summorum Pontificum. Whether you prefer the older form of Mass or the newer, Pope Benedict is working to heal the rupture that took place after the Council in our worship of Almighty God. The older use will exert a “gravitational pull” on the celebration of the newer forms and the whole Church will benefit.