This Sunday is one of the few days of the year that Catholics (who attend the Ordinary Form) will be hearing different readings depending on where they live. Either they will hear the readings for The Feast of the Ascension of the Lord or for the 7th Sunday of Easter.
The Feast of the Ascension of the Lord celebrates the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven. Two of the evangelists give an account:
“Then he led them [out] as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.”-Luke 24:50-51
“So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.”-Mark 16:19
For all Catholics, this day is a Holy Day of Obligation:
“Sunday, on which by apostolic tradition the paschal mystery is celebrated, must be observed in the universal Church as the primordial holy day of obligation. The following days must also be observed: the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension, the Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary the Mother of God, her Immaculate Conception, her Assumption, Saint Joseph, Saint Peter and Saint Paul the Apostles, and All Saints.” -Code of Canon Law #1246 §1
Historically, this feast was celebrated on Thursday. How was it reckoned? The Book of Acts tells of Jesus appearing to his followers for forty days after his resurrection:
“After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”-Acts 1:3
The 40th day after Easter Sunday will always be Thursday, therefore the Church, from very early on, celebrated Christ’s Ascension on this day.
Why the change?
This is a subject of great debate. Some say that, in recent history, attendance at Ascension Thursday Masses had been steadily declining. Consequently, the U.S. petitioned the Holy See to transfer the day in accord with Canon Law:
“With the prior approval of the Apostolic See, however, the conference of bishops can suppress some of the holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday.”-Code of Canon Law #1246 §2
To move or not to move. Who decides?
The decision on when to celebrate the Ascension is up to the ecclesiastical province. What’s that? Many Catholics (myself included) have never heard of this entity. An ecclesiastical province is a large archdiocese and other dioceses that are bound to it through geography or history. In the United States, there is typically one ecclesiastical province per state (in the Latin Rite).
In the U.S., all ecclesiastical provinces have transferred the celebration of the Ascension to Sunday except Boston, Hartford, Philadelphia, and Omaha. Why? Perhaps because these are among the oldest provinces in the country and decided to uphold tradition.
We are not alone.
Several other countries have obtained permission from the Holy See to move the celebration of the Ascension to the following Sunday including Canada, Australia, Ireland, England and Wales.
What about travelers?
I am from Miami, Fl where the Ascension has been transferred to Sunday. Let’s say I am taking a trip to Boston where the Ascension is celebrated on Thursday. Am I obligated to attend the Ascension Mass on Thursday (in Boston) and then again on Sunday when I return to Miami? According to Canon Law, yes. I would have heard the readings for the Ascension twice.
What about the opposite? What if my friend Boston Rob visited me from Wednesday to Saturday? Well, he is out of luck. He will celebrate the Sixth Thursday of Easter in Miami, and then the Seventh Sunday of Easter in Boston. He will not celebrate the Ascension this year.
What about you? Will you be attending the Ascension Mass or the Seventh Sunday of Easter this weekend? Some believe Ascension Thursday should remain on Thursday. Do you agree? Have you experienced this traveling conundrum? Share and let’s learn together!