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Diebus Saltem Dominicis: Sunday after Ascension Thursday – What’s up?

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The Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, forty days after His Resurrection, was once graced with its own Octave.  In 1955 Pius XII suppressed all but the Octaves of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.  These three remain now in the Roman Church’s Vetus Ordo.  However, the Octave of Ascension dated back only to the 15th century, relatively late compared to many aspects of the Roman Rite.  Earlier, the Sunday after Ascension Thursday was called dominica de rosa, because during Holy Mass at the Roman Station Church assigned for the day, Santa Maria “ad martyres” (aka the Pantheon), rose petals were let fall through the central oculus opening in the dome.  These days, this is done on Pentecost.  In the Epistle for this Sunday, however, Peter emphasizes the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Just as we have octaves in the Church’s liturgical calendar, which allow us to contemplate the mystery of great feasts from different angles, so too, we have novenas, leading up to certain days, which help us to prepare to receive the content of the mystery or to obtain other graces.  This is what the Apostles had between Ascension and Pentecost.

It is customary for us to pray for an increase of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit during this Novena.  Easy for us to do, right?  We have the gift of retrospect.  The Apostles did not.

Mayhap we could project ourselves back to the Upper Room where the Apostles were with the Lord for the Last Supper, the beginning of His Passion.  Now it’s after the Ascension.  It’s the original Novena time.  They knew something big was coming.  During the Last Supper the Lord said He was leaving.  The Gospel account from the Last Supper assures the Apostles and us that He would send the Paraclete, the Comforter Advocate Councilor.

In those forty days between His resurrection and His Ascension, the Lord was teaching the Apostles and disciples a new way to view Him, so that they didn’t need to see Him with physical eyes to believe, so that they didn’t attach earthly attainments to His victory over death, such as the reestablishment of the Davidic Kingdom and triumph over the Roman occupiers.  Like Mary Magdalen, they had to stop hanging on to Him in His physical mode of presence.  Like the disciples at Emmaus, they had to start seeking and seeing him in the breaking of the bread, the Eucharist.

Imagine them in the Upper Room, a few days after the Ascension, and a week out from the great Jewish Spring Feast, Shavuoth, “Weeks” or Pentecost, the “50th feast”.  The count of forty days would certainly not have been lost on them.  They knew their salvation history.  Yet, I imagine that the Lord explained the meaning of forty to them, forty days of the flood, forty years of the wandering, forty days of his fasting even after some of them met Him.  Forty days from the tomb and He had ascended into Heaven in a cloud of glory, a sign of God’s divine presence which one settled on the tent of meeting in the wilderness and later filled the Temple.  They must have known that something was up and that it might happen on Shavuoth.  Already the city was revving up for the hundreds of thousands of people who were obliged to ascend to Jerusalem.  They probably would have tried to remember everything that Christ ever told them about His mission, going over details, trying to piece the puzzle together, praying for insight.  Their meals… Masses?  He told them to “do this”.  Surely, they did.

The Apostles were 1st century Jews in Jerusalem.  They had seen the Lord Ascend, forty days after His Resurrection when they were celebrating Bikkurim, the feast of the first fruits of the harvest.  Jesus was the first fruit of the true and new harvest.  They had to be speculating about the upcoming 50-day feast of Shavuoth after Bikkurim.  What would they have known.

Some context helps.  Shavuoth is a spring harvest festival.  Like all Jewish feasts, and our own Christian feasts, they simultaneously look backward to commemorate some great event in salvation history, and they look forward to its eventual fulfillment by God.  In this case, for Pentecost in the 1st century they would have celebrated how Moses and the twelve tribes arrived at Mount Sinai after Passover after passing though the waters (Exodus 19).  Three days after their arrival the fiery cloud of glory descended, and God was with Moses.

In the Upper Room the Apostles, by Christ’s intention twelve, looking back to the twelve tribes, reflect on Jesus as the new Moses, ascending to the presence of God and awaiting the descent of a fire cloud of glory.  Jesus had commanded them to stay in Jerusalem and wait to be clothed in power.  What did that mean, clothed in power?  Like Moses on the Mount?  Jesus had told them at the Last Supper, “John baptized with water, you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit.”

This is the Holy Spirit that made them burst out of the pent-up doors to preach and baptize.

This is the same Holy Spirit lavished upon you and in you at baptism.  The same was confirmed in you and deepened in you.  This is the same Spirit whom you reject when you sin, by omission or commission.  The same who returns with the state of grace and who deepens in you through good Holy Communions and living devoutly, especially though self-emptying.  The more you get out of the way, the more the Holy Spirit can abide in you and manifest his gifts and fruits.

How can we take steps for this greater and fuller life of the Spirit?  The Church quotes I Peter 4:7-11 giving us direction.  This is what the Church wants you to do:

therefore keep sane and sober for your prayers. Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another.

The end of all things is at hand.  That means also that the beginning of all things is at hand.  The very meaning of all things is at hand.  When the Lord Ascended, angels appeared and said, “why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11).  One could suspect that they were wondering, “Now what?  He’s gone!”  But He had just told them about the Holy Spirit.  The angels say that He will return as He ascended.  The Apostles knew that they had Him in the new sacraments and especially in the breaking of the bread.  They couldn’t just stand there looking around.  It was time for action.

You don’t have forever to get right with the Holy Spirit.  There will be a cut off date when your state is determined for eternity.  In all you do, remember the life of Heaven that awaits you.  Don’t be mired in the world.  Remember the sacrament of Confirmation which you have received.  Transform your daily tasks into opportunities also for prayer, watchful and constant.  I pray for you a holy continuation of your Pentecost preparations.

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