Catholic Herald: A priest on the loss of the sense of sacred time.

I offered you a rant about the transfer of Ascension Thursday to Sunday.  I think it is a mistake because, a) it is contrary to a liturgical tradition since the 4th century, b) it is contrary to Scripture, c) it lowers expectations of how people integrate the Church’s year of Faith into their daily lives and d) it gives people the impression that the mysteries of the Lord’s life aren’t that important.

That said, we all must nevertheless submit to and follow the liturgical calendar as it is established by legitimate authority.

I saw on the site of the UK’s best Catholic weekly, The Catholic Herald (consider subscribing to the digital edition!), that another priest author has something to say about the transfer of the feast.

Celebrating the Ascension on a Sunday is a sad sign of creeping secularisation in the Church

We are witnessing the disappearance of the concept of sacred time

By Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith

I hope all readers had a happy feast of the Ascension. For most people in this country it was Ascension Sunday that you celebrated; but for me and a small minority it was Ascension Thursday.

I have been away on retreat, staying in a strictly enclosed Benedictine monastery. On arrival I asked what was happening on the Thursday, and this is what I was told: “Here we celebrate the Ascension on Thursday, by special permission. Celebrating it on Sunday would mean that the novena between Ascension and Pentecost would make no sense.” [EXACTLY.  But notice that they, laudably, obtained permission.]

Funnily enough, this aspect of the great question had never occurred to me. Given that Ascension is on a Thursday and the feast of Pentecost the Sunday after next, that means that there is a nine day gap between the two, and this nine day gap, traditionally the time when the Church waits in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit, is the reason we keep novenas. This is the original ur-Novena.

It says in the Acts of the Apostles, 1:12-14:

Then [ after the Ascension] they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

Not only was this the first ever novena in the history of the Church, and the pattern of all future novenas, it was also the most distinguished one in Church history, consisting of the eleven apostles, the holy women, and the Mother of God Herself.

Despite this, I have the distinct feeling that novenas are going out of fashion. [Okay… I’ll add it before someone else does.  A man asks a Franciscan and a Jesuit if it would be proper to pray a novena so he could have a Maserati. The Franciscan asks, “What’s a Maserati?” but the Jesuit asks “What’s a novena?”] It is time they were revived, and the same goes for Octaves too, the custom of marking the eighth day after a feast and the period in between. The Easter Octave is still with us, but the Octave of the Assumption, which ends with the feast of the Queenship of Mary is one celebration that I have never witnessed. As a child, I do remember making a novena before the feast of the Immaculate Conception. [And WHAT about the Octave of PENTECOST?]

I suppose what we are witnessing here is the disappearance of the concept of sacred time; [yes] this is a huge pity, for a tradition once lost can only with great difficulty be restored. We can hardly complain about Christmas concerts and Christmas parties in the first weeks of December when we ourselves go along with this creeping secularisation. I asked last year about the restoration of the Ascension to the Thursday, and there was some talk of putting it back in its original place.

Is it worth asking again? [You have my ‘yes’ vote.]

Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest and a doctor of moral theology. The author of several books, he was born in West Sussex, educated at Oxford and in Rome, and has lived in Malta, Italy, and Kenya

May I also add that, from the point of view of a parish and a parish priest, the elimination of a day of obligation also eliminates a collection!  Banal, perhaps, but parishes need to pay bills in order to stay open.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Supertradmum says:

    Admittedly, I grew up and was formed in the pre-Vatican II Church, but the calendar in my home was the liturgical one. My mother had us making little altars, cakes, mini-rituals for feast days and the years flowed from one liturgical season to the next, like a shelter of grace. She had the book I used with my son, It’s My Name Day, Come for Desert, plus two other books on Advent to Lent and Lent to Pentecost or so, full of ideas for children’s awareness and home celebrations. I was quite old before I realized that the world did not follow our little calendar. The school also emphasized the liturgical year and we fasted, abstained, prayed in accordance with sacred time.

    Selling out to the secular world ended these customs, many from Europe. This excellent priest is absolutely correct in his explanation and sorrow over the loss of such beautiful times which belong to Scripture and the Church. I also blame, sadly to say, working Moms, who did not do what my mom and I did, keep the liturgical year before the children constantly. There was a rhythm of life which is part of my body and soul because of this sense of sacred time.

    I am sure the experience of sacred time helped my faith grow. I am sure that if the Church stopped giving in to the market forces and brought back the necessity of sacred time, many lives would change. This diminution of sacred time is a symptom of the falling away of Catholic identity and culture. Many people at Mass yesterday did not appreciate the significance of the Ascension, as it was just another Sunday. By the way, the Easter Candle was lit during Mass. When is it now put to sleep for the year?

  2. APX says:

    I didn’t even know what a novena or an octave was up until recently. When I first saw the word octave on your blog, I was confused. The only knowledge of octaves I had was that relating to music.

  3. Legisperitus says:

    I wonder at times if bishops who transfer the Ascension obligation to Sunday might be partially motivated by a little embarrassment, in the face of the modern world, at the concept of the Ascension itself. “You actually believe Jesus floated up into the sky and sat down on a cloud, and that’s where Heaven is?”

    It takes a bit of rational thought (perhaps more than atheists are willing to sit still for) to realize that Our Lord’s ascending from the Earth to show his power and divinity does not equate to Heaven’s being a place in the Earth’s atmosphere. He ascended because He is “above” this world in a figurative sense. If He had just faded away, it would have looked like a ghost disappearing. If He had sunk down into the earth, it would have looked either ridiculous like Dryden’s “Mac Flecknoe” or positively demonic. Up means something symbolically to human beings, even if that meaning is not grossly literal.

  4. Nathan says:

    While it may be my tendency to read more traditionally-minded internet sources or talk with priests from the Diocese of Arlington (Virginia), I haven’t come across many people who think the “Ascension Thursday Sunday” transfer was a good idea at all, other than a few of those who (for various, often quite valid reasons) would have difficulty making Holy Mass on more days of obligation.

    Who was pushing bishops in this direction and are there any reasonable expectations that U.S. (where applicable) and U.K. bishops might consider restoring some of the Holy Days of Obligation? Is there a move afoot in Rome to, God willing, restore the Octave of Pentecost and aim towards a greater sense of sacred time in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite overall?

    In Christ,

  5. Tina in Ashburn says:

    I wish there was an option at least for celebrating Feast Days on their proper day. When I attend Mass on for one of four St John the Baptist feasts, even tho it is barely recognized and no longer holy days of obligation, at least I can hear the Mass of St John the Baptist. Not so with Ascension or other moved feasts.

    Getting rid of octaves also withdraws from the laity the added graces that come from octaves. Prayer is more powerful at that time. Also each octave day is that same feast for eight days! You’ll notice that within the octaves of Easter and Christmas those Masses refer to the past feast as “today”.

    Getting rid of feast days, octaves, novenas, processions, sodalities, etc has opened the door to every Tom, Dick and Harry and Mabel making up their own devotions! [Like THIS one? o{]:¬) ] Because the human heart craves that devotional life, the nuts will fill it with junk of their own making. Rather, let our prayer life be formed by the model of the Catholic Church who knows how God wants to be worshiped – then our personal prayer life is more likely to conform to proper and pleasing prayer.
    Doesn’t anybody take seriously how these twisted practices are starving the Faithful of graces God put into place? Don’t get me started on the lay readers who take the place of an ordained preacher [priest, deacon, preacher] whose very voice gives grace for conversion, and lay readers are just lame readers.
    The chaos of self-indulgent prayer practices might not have taken hold as they have had there been no vacuum of devotions.

  6. Lynne says:

    I just googled “It’s My Name Day, Come for Dessert” and the text of the book is on the EWTN website. It looks lovely!

  7. Pingback: Catholic Mom Blogs Ascension Thursday Religious Liberty Daily Examen | The Pulpit

  8. Sixupman says:

    Some English & Welsh churches celebrate the weekday major feast twice, on the feast then on the Sunday to which it has been transferred. TLMs on the weekday of course.

  9. Johnno says:

    India, the lay faithful still held novenas with rosaries around various mini shrines set up around the village/vado/area. And my family was devout so we were raised to remember such feast days. I lament the loss of these things as well. We need to start getting feast days back, have masses in the early morning and later in the evening for everyone to be able to attend.

  10. Supertradmum says:

    Lynne, I am glad you put in dessert and not desert. Although, with all the bad news. desert living at home might not be such a bad idea….spell check does not always work. lol

  11. Ancil says:

    Hey Folks! Besides Christmas and January 1, there are still (usually) weekday holy days of obligation on August 15, November 1, and December 8. In many countries, I think, the obligation on December 8 is suspended, just as for us in the U.S.A. on March 19 and June 29, and, in places where it has not been transferred, the Ascension, and, before their transfer to Sunday, the Epiphany on January 6 and Corpus Christi. But December 8, the Immaculate Conception, is the patronal feast of the U.S.A. There is much to be said for the transfer of the Epiphany (sorry, Father Zuhlsdorf, though in some ways I share your feelings of regret). There is no indication in Scripture, nor, so far as I know, in Tradition or in historical sources from the early Christian world, of the date of the visit of the Magi, and in some sense the twelve-day-ness seems little more than folklore. The idea of making the totality of churchgoers regular participants in the celebration of this Solemnity is admirable, and, unless the suspension of the obligation of January 6 is to be revoked, thereby increasing for us in the U.S.A. the number of (usually) weekday holy days of obligation, the transfer to Sunday was the only thing to do. The “Thursdayness” of Corpus Christi (the connection with Maundy Thursday) does indeed have meaning, but, as with the Epiphany, if it is desired to bring this Solemnity more into the life of the ordinary churchgoer, the transfer to Sunday may well be the best solution. The “forty-days-ness” of the Ascension, however, is Scriptural, and the destruction of the Novena is bad. (I am very glad that this idea, which has long meant much to me, has been pointed out.) Furthermore, I suspect that the transfer of the Ascension may have reduced for many churchgoers the pressingness of the obligation for the Assumption, All Saints, and the Immaculate Conception.

  12. marthawrites says:

    I LOVE novenas and say one right after another. There is always a saint or a feastday I wish to honor or anticipate with nine days of prayer beforehand. This, to me, is much better “active participation” than the motions and songs ( I won’t call them “chants”) drummed up for us in the NO. I was so pleased to celebrate Ascension Thursday on Thursday, in part because I had been thinking about the significance of Our Lord’s Ascension for nine days. And now I’m excited about Pentecost for the same reason. Long live novenas!

  13. chonak says:

    I’ll pray a nov– I mean, a sexena for the cause.

  14. Seumas says:

    Well, since Ascension is still on Thursday in the 1962 calendar, shouldn’t (or couldn’t) those who attend the Extraordinary Form hear Ascension Mass on Thursday? Aren’t those who attend the EF supposed to follow the 1962 calendar?

    I wasn’t able to attend an EF Mass on Thursday myself. I did hear an EF Mass on Sunday, for the Sunday after Ascension. At first I wondered if that fulfilled my Ascension obligation, since I was hearing an EF Mass and it wasn’t Ascension in the EF calendar But it was “Ascension Sunday” and canon law specifies any valid Mass of any Catholic Rite fulfills the Sunday or Holy Day obligation. Still, I regret not being able to attend an actual Ascension Mass. After all, this isn’t just about fulfilling an obligation. At least I was able to pray traditional Vespers on Thursday.

    So, I attended an EF Mass for the Sunday after Ascension in order to fulfill the OF Ascension obligation, and never attended an Ascension liturgy at all . Confusing much?

    If they would put our Holy Days back to where they they belong, this wouldn’t have been a problem. And if there were regular EF Masses on all Sundays and Holy Days everywhere, so much the better. But I will likely be hearing Mass in heaven (at least I have a well founded hope that I will be in heaven. Talk about the Extraordinary Form of the Liturgy! And I bet that in heaven they celebrate Ascension on Thursday) before either of those things happen.

    The fact that people work during the week is no excuse for moving Holy Days. All parishes have to do is schedule two or three Masses on those days–say morning, noon and evening–and 99% of people would have the opportunity to hear Mass regardless of schedule.

  15. Sal says:

    Dear Fr. Z,

    You mention that the Thursday Feast of the Ascension had been a liturgical tradition since the 4th Century. The implication is that it was not on a Thursday before that date. How/when/why was the date for the Ascension established as a Thursday? I know that it is 40 days after Easter, and fits into the octaves and novenas you mention, but is this not a bit of an accident of calendaring as opposed to a specific scriptural requirement? By way of comparison, Easter, Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday are all calculated based on Passover (a historical scriptural reference) and when certain moon cycles occur after the first of the year.

    Many, if not all, of the Holy Days of Obligation are a matter of tradition rather than specific scriptural reference.

    I say this carefully, but in the great scheme of things, I would say that the Ascension is a relatively minor date on the Church calendar compared to other dates. The Ascension only has significance in the context of the Resurrection (Easter). One could make an argument that Pentecost is at least as important (if not more so) and it has always been celebrated on Sunday.

  16. joan ellen says:

    I love this Church (liturgical) season and time topic and post. It is inspiring, encouraging, and most hopeful. And those words…in one accord… It used to be so, please God…if it be your will…

  17. dominic1955 says:

    In Nebraska, all three dioceses celebrate Ascension on Thursday. Thus, if you go to one of the traditional parishes, you will automatically be assisting at the Holy Day Mass anyway.

    As far as Ascension being moved to Sunday being a sign of secularism, sure it is. However, that is just one little example of the loss of sacred time. Bemoaning the transfer of Ascension to Sunday is akin to discussing the lackluster shine of the brass on the Titanic.

    We already shot ourselves in the foot by getting rid of all the octaves, various liturgical seasons, switching the calendar around, axing various observations (i.e. Rogation and Ember days). If you can ditch 1000+ years of liturgical tradition by fiat, why not transfer a holy day to Sunday? Even though it violates the old whine of the liturgical movement about feast days trumping Sundays, who cares. Its the illogical conclusion of a the rationalistic/modernistic trajectory in the Church in the last 100 years or so.

    We just as well transfer all Holy Days to Sunday, get rid of more seasons and mitigate our already useless “fast” and “abstinence” that we have left. That, or actually start being Catholic again…

  18. MicheleQ says:

    I am in the Harrisburg diocese and we celebrate Ascension Thursday (and have for as long as I can remember) but what’s interesting is that all the Amish and Mennonite here do as well. Nothing Amish or Mennonite owned is ever open on Ascension Thursday and you’ll often see Amish in town dressed up and enjoying their day off.

  19. GOR says:

    In central Wisconsin near the home of my wife’s parents there’s a store run by the Mennonites which deals in homemade foodstuffs, grains, herbs etc. We have frequently stopped there to stock up on herbs and spices.

    Last week my wife was visiting her elderly parents on Wednesday and Thursday. Passing the store on Thursday she noticed that it was closed and people were heading to church – to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension!

    I was reminded of Our Lord’s words about the Centurion and not finding “such faith, even in Israel…” Perhaps we could learn something from the Mennonites!

  20. Gaz says:

    IMHO the very early. Chrism Masses (even before Holy Week) are further proof of this. In jest I suggested that we have it just after Epiphany here to kick people into thinking about how integral it is to the celebration of Easter.

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