During the first three centuries, the Ascension of the Lord was commemorated with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. In the mid-fourth century, it arises as a separate feast day and achieves nearly universal spread by the fifth century. This solemnity is mentioned among the important feasts and mysteries of the Lord by the Church Fathers, especially St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom. In Chrysostom’s homily on the Ascension, he brings it into eschatological focus for mankind:
“Through the mystery of the Ascension we, who seemed unworthy of God’s earth, are taken up into Heaven.”
Climbing the Mountain
At Byzantine Vespers on Ascension Thursday, we hear this excerpt:
“Come you, O faithful, and let us climb the Mount of Olives and with the Apostles let us lift up our minds and our hearts on high. Let us behold our Lord as He is taken up to heaven and let us cry out with joy and gratitude: Glory to Your ascension, O most merciful One.”Aposticha of Ascension Thursday Vespers, Pentecostarion
If you are blessed to live in a geographic region where climbing a mountain or hillside is possible, take part in this common central European tradition for this feast day. As sacramental beings, we turn to natural symbols like mountains, water, and fire, as signs of spiritual events. These signs point us toward the sacred mysteries. A hilltop hike or journey to a mountain for a picnic is a reminder of the scriptures of the day, commemorating Christ’s ascent at the Mount of Olives.
For the Birds
For a festive dinner on this feast day, it is customary to eat some type of bird, such as a pheasant, quail, or goose. German tradition serves pastries in the form of various birds. This calls to mind various images of Jesus “flying” up to heaven. Some churches used an oculus in the ceiling to draw up a statue of the risen Lord through the opening, leaving worshippers staring up at the heavens as in the Bible:
“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”Acts 1:11
One ancient English custom for this feast day was called “Beating the Bounds.” This tradition marked out the parish boundaries by making a formal procession around them while carrying boughs or branches, hitting various signposts along the way (trees, stones, other markers). (See Urlin, 113–114.) There is a relationship between this tradition and the procession for the blessing of crops which customarily occurs during the Ascension rogation days, which were marked with fasting and prayer. (The word rogation is from the Latin “to ask.”) The three days before Ascension are called “minor rogation days.” On these days, Christians would fast, pray litanies, and process through the fields to bless crops, avoid damaging pests, and pray for good weather. Today, there are special votive Masses that can be prayed for these agricultural intentions.
The Via Lucis
While most Catholics are familiar with the Stations of the Cross, or Via Crucis, many are surprised to learn about its lesser-known relative, the Via Lucis, or Way of Light. This is a stational prayer that resembles the Stations of the Cross, but instead of following the steps of Christ on the way to Calvary, it centers on the Gospel appearances of Christ following his resurrection to his ascension (see Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20). The origins of this practice come from ancient Christian devotion which has been revitalized and formalized in recent years. It is inspired by an ancient inscription at the catacombs of St. Callistus. The Holy See promotes this devotion in the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, praising it as
“an excellent pedagogy of the faith, since ‘per crucem ad lucem [“through the cross to the light”].’ Using the metaphor of a journey, the Via Lucis moves from the experience of suffering, which in God’s plan is part of life, to the hope of arriving at man’s true end: liberation, joy and peace which are essentially paschal values.”Phan, 153
This perfectly summarizes the two facets of the Paschal mystery, which the Catechism recalls, that “by his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by his resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life” (CCC 654). Each station of light follows a familiar pattern from the stations of the cross, with an Easter twist emphasizing the Resurrection:
We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you! Because by the Wood of the Cross and the Light of the Resurrection:
You have redeemed the world!
The Novena to the Holy Spirit begins today. Between the Lord’s ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples “joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Similarly, the Church spends the nine days preceding Pentecost praying for the coming of the Spirit. This is the true origin of this novena as a practice in Christian piety, one of the earliest forms of intercessory prayer. In the family, one way to simply incorporate a novena is to pray it after dinner. To extend the liturgical life to the family, it is especially appropriate to celebrate Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours during these nine days. As we await the promised comforter, the Paraclete, let us pray for the Holy Spirit to renew our hearts and help us to be open to God’s will.
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