Traditionally, the Solemnity of The Ascension of the Lord has been celebrated 40 days after Easter in keeping with the Scriptural reference in Acts: “To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). While Easter is a moveable feast, celebrated on a different date in March or April every year, the 40th day after Easter has always been, will always be, a Thursday. However, it is for pastoral reasons, that the Solemnity of the Ascension, which joyfully celebrates the completion of Christ’s work of redemption, may be transferred to the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
What is the reasoning behind the transfer of certain Holy Days of Obligation, such as the Ascension, to the closest Sunday?
Firstly, it is important to remember that historically holy days were generally the same as holidays. A Holy Day of Obligation meant there was no work that day—as on a holiday. A Holy Day of Obligation was a day of rest and prayer. Mass attendance was but one part of what was expected on those days.
Secondly, Catholic holy days have their root in Jewish holy days, when all temporal activity was expected to cease. The entire day was dedicated to God, not just an hour of worship.
In modern times this expectation still exists in canon law: Can. 1247: On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.
One can readily see then, that trying to “fit in” Mass attendance into one’s work day is not the spirit of Holy Days of Obligation. But the reality of today’s world is that, outside of a few exceptions, it is simply not possible for the majority of the faithful to abstain from work during the week. Thus, the Church transfers certain holy days to Sundays as a way of not building up unnecessary burdens upon the faithful (Matt 23:4).
In some parts of the world there is also the practical problem of not having enough priests to celebrate Mass in all churches on those week days.
On July 5, 1999, Pope John Paul II approved a decree that gave permission for, “ … Ecclesiastical Provinces of the United States (to) transfer the Ascension of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ from Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter to the Seventh Sunday of Easter …”
In the United States, the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha, and Philadelphia continue observing Ascension Thursday as a Holy Day of Obligation. Ecclesiastical provinces usually follow state lines, but some provinces cover more than one state. As a result, one fifth of the states continue to celebrate Ascension on Thursday: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.
Whether we celebrate the Ascension on a Thursday or a Sunday, it is more important to remember that the Ascension is a joyful feast; it is the fulfillment of Christ’s salvific mission. The Ascension is the culminating facet of the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension into heaven (as mentioned in the Eucharist Prayer of the Mass).
Before he took his leave from this world, Jesus told his Apostles that he was returning to his Father and, when he did, he would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The Ascension leads to Pentecost, to the descent of this Holy Spirit.
Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that the Lord is “just so far away that our heart’s longing is kept alive, and just so near that this longing can give birth to further, vibrant longing.” The Lord of all, seated at the right hand of the Father, is present to us always, and most uniquely, in the Eucharist, and with it sustains us in this world even as he uses it as food to bring us to the next.
The Solemnity of the Ascension is the joyful celebration of the Lord’s closeness to us now and our hope to be with him forever in paradise. Truly and sincerely, we can join the psalmist in proclaiming, “God mounts His throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.”
In these days, as we approach the Solemnity of the Ascension and look forward to Pentecost, let us also be vivified by Jesus’ parting exhortation: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”