Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Meaning and Customs of Ascension Thursday

Ascension Folio 13v of the Rabula Gospels (Florence)

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ occurs forty days after Easter (which this year is May 26). According to the Bible, Jesus took His Apostles to Mount Olivet forty days after He rose from the dead where He predicted the coming of the Holy Spirit and told them that they would be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. He was then “lifted up before their eyes, and a cloud took Him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9).

In a previous article, we discussed the meaning of the Collect; today, let us turn to the broader meaning of the feast and some paraliturgical customs that grew out of it.
It is tempting to see the Ascension as a sad occasion, for Jesus in the flesh has left us and we can no longer physically look upon His Holy Face. But the New Testament list several reasons not to lament but to rejoice.
First, Jesus tells us that it is good for Him to leave in order to send the Holy Spirit, who guides us unswervingly back to God (John 16:7).
Second, Jesus not only does not leave us orphans by sending the Paraclete, there is a way in which He never leaves us in the first place. While it is true that Jesus ascended body and soul into Heaven, it is equally true that He is really present in the Eucharist. Saint Luke, whom we believe wrote the Acts of the Apostles (which contains an account of the Ascension) also wrote the third Gospel, which includes the story of the disciples of Emmaus encountering the risen Jesus, where they recognize Him “in the breaking of the bread.” When Jesus of Nazareth walked the face of the earth, He was only visible to a handful of people. When Jesus is present in the Eucharist, billions can look upon His Holy Face behind the sacramental veils.
Third, there is a way in which the Ascension was not the end but the beginning. When Jesus was raised up to Heaven, there was no “Mission Accomplished” celebration, after which the Son of God took a well-deserved vacation. No, His work was just beginning. After passing through the Pearly Gates, the High Priest Jesus Christ entered the Holy of Holies with His own Precious Blood in atonement for our sins. He then took His seat at the right hand of the Father where He continually intercedes for us, pleading for us and showing His merciful Father His still-open wounds. The Ascension is the final—and ongoing—step of the Paschal Mystery, for which we spent all of Lent preparing and all of Eastertide celebrating.
Fourth, the good news about the Ascension is that Heaven is now open to us. Heaven was closed to man after the fall of Adam and Eve; indeed, they were even kicked out of the Garden of Eden. But when the Son returned to the Father, He brought with Him His entire humanity (which He assumed when He became incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Indeed, it is likely that He brought with Him a whole comet tails of souls which He rescued from Limbo when “He descended into Hell” on Good Friday. As St. John Chrysostom notes:
Through the mystery of the Ascension we, who seemed unworthy of God's earth are taken up into Heaven .... Our very nature, against which Cherubim guarded the gates of [earthly] Paradise, is enthroned today high above all Cherubim.
Our humanity is in Heaven, which makes us sharers in Divinity. Not a bad deal, that!
Pageantry. The Ascension was originally the occasion of long processions that started in the city, exited through the gates, and culminated at the top of a hill, just as Jesus Christ led the Apostles towards Bethany (Luke 24:50). Jerusalem, Rome, and Constantinople all had their preferred routes and destinations. 
Over time, the processions waned and were replaced by pageants, less liturgical or nonliturgical reenactments of Christ's ascending into Heaven. The "pageant" could be as simple as a priest raising a crucifix when he read during the proclamation of the Gospel the verse Assumptus est in caelum (He was taken up into Heaven); such was the custom in Germany. More often than not, full-fledged pageants were performed after Mass but still in the church. In churches with a hole in the ceiling, a statue of Jesus would be hoisted up by ropes and disappear from sight as the people below raised their hands longingly towards it.
Plate with a black crow on it
Food. It was once a custom in Europe to eat fowl on the great Feast of the Ascension  “because Christ ‘flew’ to Heaven.” Pheasants, partridges, pigeons, and even crows found their way to the dinner table—so what does it mean to eat crow on Ascension Thursday? Perhaps this is what the other Apostles served St. Thomas to needle him about his earlier doubts concerning the Resurrection. In any event, bakers in western Germany picked up on the volucrine theme and made far more delicious pastries for the occasion in the shape of various birds. Finally, there is a first-fruits tradition for Ascension Thursday. In some parts of France, apple fritters (beignets des pommes) are a popular choice.
Dos and Don'ts. The English once kept this day with games, dancing, and horse races, while in Central Europe, the idea was to picnic on a high place by hiking there. Mountain-climbing was therefore a yes, but swimming was a big no-no; you were more likely to drown on Ascension Thursday than on any other day of the year. Similar misfortunes awaited anyone who on this holy day worked in field or garden or sewed anything, for any clothing that has been touched by a needle on the Ascension will attract lightning and kill the wearer. Such superstitions are believed to be residues of old pagan fears about demons of death who roam the earth this time of year.
At the very least, these silly beliefs point to something true that is easily forgotten in our own day and age of phrenetic work and moveable feasts, namely, that the Ascension is one of the most important events of the year. If it is important enough to attract the attention of devils, it should be important enough to attract our attention as well and celebrate it with great solemnity, reverence, and joy.[1] Keep holy the Ascension: take off work if you can, assist at Mass even if your diocese has transferred the feast to Sunday, climb a mountain, eat a bird, and avoid bodies of water.
[1] Indeed, according to Blessed Columba Marmion it is, in a certain sense, the greatest Feast of Our Lord of the entire year insofar as it is "the supreme glorification of Christ Jesus" (Christ in His Mysteries, trans. Alan Bancroft [Zaccheus Press, 2008], p. 347).

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