In Ancient Israel numbers bore a special significance. The number 40 appears several times in the Old Testament. In Genesis, the Lord sends down torrential rain upon the earth for 40 days and 40 nights. In Exodus, the newly freed Hebrews roam the desert for 40 years.
In the New Testament, the number 40 also holds a place of prominence. Forty days after the birth of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph take the infant Savior to the Temple to present Him to the Lord. After St. John the Baptist baptizes Jesus in the River Jordan, the Lord spends 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. Finally, 40 days after His glorious resurrection, Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives, gives the surviving 11 Apostles their great commission and then ascends to heaven.
Ever since the fourth century, the Church, the New Israel, has celebrated the Solemnity of the Ascension on a Thursday, exactly 40 days after the date of Easter Sunday. Just as on Ash Wednesday, the Church begins her Lenten observance of 40 days of penitence, so too, 40 days after the great day of Easter, the Church celebrates Christ's triumphant return to the Father.
However, in recent years, a change has taken place, a change that I believe is not necessarily for the best. Dioceses and ecclesial provinces now have the option of translating, that is to say, moving, the grand Solemnity of the Ascension from the traditional (and scripturally based) Thursday to Sunday, pretty much blotting out the Seventh Sunday of Easter. While I can understand the pastoral view of making the feast more accessible to the faithful, there is a troubling aspect in such a move.
Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, in his excellent blog, What Does the Prayer Really Say, offers us his annual rant about this move:
Fr. Z makes some solid points in his post. Aside from making the case for the preservation of the tradition of the 40 days, Fr. Z also reminds us of another important number, nine (9). Tradition and Scripture hold that Pentecost occurred nine days after the Ascension; hence, the Apostles, along with the Blessed Mother, were engaged in praying the first novena. Moving Ascension Thursday to Ascension Sunday seems to throw a monkey wrench into this, making some sort of liturgical "cosmic imbalance."
What perhaps concerns me the most is the fact that, while the bishops are trying to be pastoral, it seems to me that such action is, lamentably, causing us to actually become less disciplined. We only have a handful of Holy Days of Obligation outside of Sunday. Would it really cost us too much to give God an extra hour of our weekly time? If I can give my hairdresser more than an hour twice a week and engage in several hours of TV time to watch NCIS, can I not do the same (and more) to God? We go the gym to get our bodies in shape. We urge our kids to get into sports, dance or music and make sacrifices to take them to practice and then watch their games and performances. We don't mind the inconveniences for secular projects and events. We are willing to make sacrifices for such things and we even teach our children to do so. But, what about God? Is it really too much to go to Mass one extra day? If we are willing to devote extra time to other activities, why are we so stingy with the Lord?
Now, I am not saying that the gym, sports, TV, hair appointments, dances and concerts are evil. I am no curmudgeon. However, we need to prioritize. Moving the Solemnity of the Ascension from Thursday to Sunday is not helping the cause. As I see it, it's hurting it.
A priest friend of mine wrote me about the move of the bishops of England and Wales to restore the application of the Friday meatless penance to encompass the entire year, not just Lent. Maybe, just maybe, the bishops might also restore the Holy Days to their proper prominence and lead the way for the rest to follow.
I would love to see the provinces of Texas, both San Antonio and Galveston-Houston, restore Ascension Thursday to its rightful place. Maybe, given the fact that, as Fr. Z reports in his blog, the revised Roman Missal now has options for a Vigil Mass for the Ascension, this might help things. Furthermore, as Fr. Z also reports in his post, the calendar for the Extraordinary Form (based on the 1962 Missal), retains Ascension Thursday. Maybe this could very well be another example of the "mutual enrichment" that Pope Benedict spoke of when promulgating Summorum Pontificum.