Ascension: Learning to Prayerfully Wait

Tampering with Ascension Thursday warps both Scripture and our preparation in God's time

Once more, Ascension Thursday is upon us and once again we see the liturgical and theological incoherence the Catholic bishops of the United States caused, in the name of being “pastoral” while exercising canonical fiat, in the liturgical calendar. I have three major criticisms of what they have done — in tampering with time — to the six Holy Days of Obligation in the U.S. Their innovations are (1) the insane “some-holy-days-are-holy-days-unless-they-fall-on-Saturdays-or-Mondays-when-they’re-not” rule, which is particularly egregious when it comes to the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, which the Church sometimes ignores even though it is always a civil holiday; (2) the negation of holy days, both by not treating them as holy days in the place given them by Tradition in the calendar but shifting them to Sundays (think Epiphany, which can fall anywhere between January 2-8, or Corpus Christi); and (3) the geographical mishmash that undermines the Scriptural place in the calendar of Ascension Thursday.

Those familiar with United States practice know that Ascension Thursday is observed on Thursday (May 9) in the six states of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska. The rest of the states will observe it on the following Sunday (May 12). That’s because, in 1999, the USCCB obtained Vatican approval to transfer the Solemnity of the Ascension from Thursday to the following Sunday (the Seventh Sunday of Easter). Canon 1246 § 2 permits episcopal conferences to seek such permission. But the bishops in the United States went one further in their holy day hodgepodge. They decided that the transfer would only apply in those ecclesiastical provinces (i.e., the archdiocese and its suffragan dioceses) that sought it. If a particular ecclesiastical province did not change, Ascension Thursday remained on Thursday.

Many northeastern dioceses were holdouts, though — being the minority position in the U.S. — some have switched, e.g., the Province of Newark (i.e., all the Latin dioceses of New Jersey) transferred the Solemnity to Sunday in 2022. So, May 9 is a holy day in New York but not New Jersey, Pennsylvania but not Ohio.

In the best of our anti-clerical clericalist bishops, we’re not told why this change is necessary, only that they have checked the canonical boxes and gotten the authority to do this. Truth is that holy days were a controversy in the USCCB in the 1980s and 1990s, with a certain faction holding that many Catholics were ignoring them and, therefore, the “pastoral” thing to do was make them more convenient by amalgamating them to the following Sunday. With declining numbers of priests, it also eliminated “extra” work for those who remained. The other faction held that the Church had already made too many concessions to secularization and modernity, e.g., the evisceration of Friday abstinence, and that — far from being “pastoral” — the proposed change only furthered that secularization and diluted Catholic identity and consciousness. In the best of “episcopal comity” (i.e., not looking like we disagree when we disagree) the “province-by-province” compromise was cobbled together.

(At least it’s an improvement over the “pastoral” approach in moral questions of some proponents of a false version of “synodality,” i.e., having local episcopal conferences decide whether to admit divorced-and-“remarried” Catholics to Communion. That yields the incoherence of recognizing the couple’s state for what it is — adultery — and denying them Communion in Poland but then maybe calling them “irregular” while voicing a hertzlich Willkommen to them in Germany.)

Why my objections to tampering with Ascension Thursday?

Because it undermines Scripture: The New Testament is clear that Jesus appeared to His disciples “over a period of forty days” (Acts 1:3) — not 43 days, 40 days. Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances are the distinctive witness to whom He is and what His whole Life is about; as Paul makes clear, it is Jesus’ Resurrection that grounds the Christian faith (I Cor 15:16-19). That is why the Easter Season is so important in our liturgical calendar. And so, if Jesus’ appearances in the flesh definitively ended on day 40 with His Ascension, that’s important. Important enough to observe — as generations of Catholics with far less efficient means of transportation and far more numerous times for Masses did — by going to Mass.

A priest posted a social media “joke” that captures the “logic” of what the bishops of the United States did. It depicts a classic icon in which Jesus is shown rising on the clouds, elevated by angels, while Mary and the Apostles gaze from below. It includes an adapted Biblical quote: “’Do not cling to me! I am ascending to my Father and your Father…’ except if you live outside the northeast, in which case I’ll be hanging around a couple more days…”

The Ascension is not connected with a Thursday just by Tradition. Custom pegged the Epiphany to January 6; the Bible doesn’t say the Magi arrived in Bethlehem 12 days after Jesus was born. There’s no Biblical basis for fixing Corpus Christi to a Thursday usually in June (it was added to the Church’s universal calendar only in the 14th century), although the Thursday nexus is intended to allude to the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday. But the Acts of the Apostles is clear: Jesus ascended 40 days after His Resurrection. Forty days after “the first day of the week” (John 20:1) is the fifth day of the week, i.e., Thursday.

These are the most important moments of our salvation history. And I draw an analogy to what we should learn from secular history. As a result of “convenience” (the civil equivalent of “pastoral need”), Congress transferred various American holidays from their historical dates to variable Mondays. That decision arguably fostered historical illiteracy: How many Americans still could cite the date of Columbus’s  landing (October 12, 1492) or Washington’s birthday (February 22, 1732)? It was precisely for historical reasons that American veterans pushed back successfully against the 1968 “reform” (which stuck Veterans Day on the fourth Monday of October), restoring its observance to November 11, coinciding with the historical fact of the Armistice signing that ended World War I in 1918.

Because it destroys the notion of waiting on God’s time: Just before ascending into heaven — on the 40th day — Jesus instructed His disciples “[d]o not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised …. For John baptized with water, but in few days, you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5). Jesus clearly associated His departure with the Holy Spirit’s coming. He makes that clear already at the Last Supper: His “going away” is “good” for the Apostles because it is the precondition of the Paraclete’s advent (John 16:7). Immediately before His Ascension, Jesus even makes clear what He wants them to do: remain in Jerusalem and wait a “few days” — the time is not specified, because it is God’s time — and prepare for the Holy Spirit.

Jesus did not tell them “wait around unless it’s inconvenient.” He is clear: prepare for the next, essential moment in salvation history. And when that will happen is God’s decision, not yours, so be patient and pray.

Indeed, Jesus implicitly swats back against those wanting to speed up the divine timeline. When these first bishops, the Apostles, ask Jesus just prior to His Ascension “are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel now?” (because we’ve been waiting three years!) Jesus tells them bluntly, “It is not yours to know the times or dates the Father has set” (Acts 1:7) — neither when the world will end, when the Kingdom will come, or when the Holy Spirit will arrive. Your job is to prepare.

Does the historically destructive “transferal” of the Solemnity support that spiritual teaching? No.

Because it destroys preparation: I do not believe the “pastoral” transfer supports the spiritual call to prepare for the last stage of the Paschal Mystery, the definitive gift of the Holy Spirit. First of all, Jesus tells them to “wait” no matter how long it takes. Clearly, the traditional arrangement is too long for the Catholic bishops of the U.S.: let’s pare off three days.

Nine days intervene between the Lord’s departure and the Spirit’s advent. That was the Church’s first “novena,” and one that was designed not by popular devotion but God’s own timetable. Fifty years ago, most American Catholics lost the tradition of novenas because superficial liturgists decided novenas were a-liturgical “popular devotions” (and usually far too Marian). That shallow “conclusion” ignored the fact that the first novena on record is found in Scripture and was arguably the interval Jesus told His disciples to wait. The coup de grace of that skin-deep thinking was the bishops’ decision to chop the historical interlude between Ascension and Pentecost.

God does not necessarily answer on our timetable. Our job is to prepare ourselves for Him, not to check our watches. He is the conductor, not us. Novenas taught Catholics to ask for an extended time for God’s favor or help, if it be His Will. What, in our contemporary set of spiritual practices, prepares the average Catholic for that?

So, I believe the tampering with Ascension undermines salvation history, warps Scripture, destroys Catholics’ sense of preparation for God’s action on God’s schedule, and does all that largely to acquiesce conveniently in an encroaching secularization. The 1999 decree should be scrapped and the Solemnity of the Ascension restored to the 40th day after Easter, Thursday. Bishops should explain why Catholics ought to be at Mass that day, not instead create canonical fictions to excuse them.

While they’re at it, they might eliminate the rest of their holy-day gallimaufry.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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