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Forgotten Customs of Ascensiontide

Ascension of Christ by Polish painter Jan Matejko (1838–1893)

Ascensiontide As the Forgotten End of Pascaltide

The total length of Paschaltide from Easter Sunday to the end of Whitsuntide is fifty-six days inclusive. In this way, Holy Mother Church shows us the joy of Easter has eclipsed the time of penance of Lent. Ascentiontide lasts for 10 days and is part of the Pascal Season. The first nine days of Ascensiontide include the traditional Octave of the Ascension. The last day of Ascentiontide is the Vigil of Pentecost. Pentecost Sunday, which has its own octave, follows. The Sunday following the Octave of Pentecost (Trinity Sunday) officially begins the Season After Pentecost. Some of these names should be familiar to Catholics, especially those who regularly assist at the Tridentine Mass.

Ascension Thursday Must Be Kept on a Thursday

The Ascension has three principal parts: the departure of Jesus from earth, His going up into heaven, and taking His place at the right hand of the Father. It was precisely on the fortieth day after our Lord’s Resurrection that He ascended into Heaven.

According to St. Augustine, the Feast of the Ascension is of Apostolic origin. As early as the fifth century, documentation of this feast is preserved. Since the ninth century during the Pontificate of Pope Leo III (795 – 816) and up until the 1950s, the Ascension had an associated Octave attached to it. Predating this Octave is the long-established practice of having a Vigil for the Ascension, which dates back to the 7th century.

While the Feast of the Ascension – despite its high rank as one of the most important holy days in the year – has fallen into obscurity and lack of observance in many areas (often transferred to the following Sunday post Vatican II), it is still a public holiday in many countries (e.g. Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Haiti, Iceland, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Namibia, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Vanuatu). As such, Catholic culture underscores the importance of the Ascension through its customs that precede and follow Ascension Thursday. One of those customs is seen through Ascension Day Processions.

Ascension Day Processions &
the Extinguishment of the Pascal Candle

Father Weiser in Christian Feasts and Customs relates the following:

From the very beginning of its observance as a separate festival, the Ascension had a distinctive feature in the liturgical procession which went outside the city, and usually to the top of a hill, in imitation of Chris’s leading the Apostles “out towards Bethany” (Luke 24, 50). In Jerusalem it was, of course, the original path that Christ took to the summit of the Mount of Olives. In Constantinople the suburb of Romanesia, where Saint John Chrysostom had preached his sermons on the Ascension, was chosen. In Rome, the pope was crowned by the cardinals in his chapel after the morning service, and in solemn procession conducted to the church of the Lateran. From there, after the Pontifical Mass, toward noon, the procession went to a shrine or church outside the walls. The Epistle of the Ascension was read and a prayer service held.

This custom of the procession was introduced as a fairly universal rite in the Latin Church during the eighth and ninth centuries, but finally was replaced by the non-liturgical pageants of the High Middle Ages. The only relic still extant in our present liturgy is the simple but impressive ceremony in every Catholic church, after the Gospel of the Mass has been sung, of extinguishing the Easter candle. In some sections of Germany and central Europe, however, semi-liturgical processions are still held after the High Mass. Preceded by candles and cross, the faithful walk with prayer and song through fields and pastures, and the priest blesses each lot of ground.

Why Did Our Lord Ascend into Heaven?

Stepping back though, we may ask why the Ascension is even so highly celebrated. The answer to this fundamental question is found in the Preface for the Ascension, a Preface found in the Traditional Roman Rite:

It is truly meet and just, right and availing unto salvation that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty and everlasting God; through Christ our Lord. Who after His resurrection appeared and showed Himself to all His disciples; and while they beheld Him, was lifted up into heaven, so that He might make us partakers of His Godhead. And therefore with angles and archangels, with thrones and dominations, and with all the heavenly hosts, we sing a hymn to Thy glory, saying without ceasing…

The answer to our question is thus: “so that He might make us partakers of His Godhead.” Our Lord ascended for us. He ascended so that we might become divine. Dom Guéranger, O.S.B. similarly expresses the sublime reason for our Lord’s Ascension with the words:

Jesus ascended into heaven. His Divinity had never been absent; but, by Ascension, His Humanity was also enthroned there, and crowned with the brightest diadem of glory. This is another phase of the mystery we are now solemnizing. Besides a triumph, the Ascension gave to the sacred Humanity a place on the very throne of the eternal Word, to whom it was united in unity of Person. From this throne, it is to receive the adoration of men and of angels. At the name of Jesus, Son of Man, and Son of God—of Jesus who is seated at the right hand of the Father almighty—“Every knee shall bend, in heaven, on earth and in hell.”

Dom Guéranger elsewhere reflects as to why the Ascension is always mentioned in the Canon of the Mass. Here he expresses similar noteworthy sentiments:

The feast of the Ascension shows us the work of God in its completion. Hence it is that the Church, in her daily offering of the holy sacrifice, thus addresses the eternal Father: the words occur immediately after the consecration, and contain the motives of her confidence in the divine mercy: ‘Wherefore, O Lord, we Thy servants, as also Thy holy people, calling to mind the blessed Passion of Christ Thy Son our Lord, His Resurrection from the dead, and His admirable Ascension into heaven, offer unto Thy most excellent Majesty a pure, holy, and unspotted Host.’

It is not enough for man to hope in the merits of his Redeemer’s Passion, which cleansed him from his sins; it is not enough for him to add to the commemoration of the Passion that of the Resurrection, whereby our Redeemer conquered death; man is not saved, he is not reinstated, except by uniting these two mysteries with a third: the Ascension of the same Jesus who was crucified and rose again.

The Ascension’s Connection with the Passion

On the Mount of Olives, the same mount where the Passion began, Our Lord physically ascended into Heaven. At the top of the mount is a chapel in honor of the Ascension and the ground still retains the depressions His sacred feet had left. Thus, there is an intimate connection between the Passion and the Ascension that is not as clearly seen unless the faithful are taught this important historical fact.

It also must be taught of the importance the Ascension had in winning us Heaven. It was fitting that Christ, the conqueror of death, would be the first to open the gates of Heaven. He did so not on the day of His Resurrection but forty days later when He opened Heaven, led the souls of the just from the Limbo of the Fathers (e.g., Adam, Eve, Moses, Isaiah, et cetera) into Heaven, and He took His seat at the right hand of the Father. For the first time in world history, human flesh had entered Heaven. Hence, when our Lord told the Good Thief, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise,” He was not speaking of Heaven as we understand it usually.

The Octave of the Ascension

The Mass Propers for the Octave of the Ascension are the same as on the Feast of the Ascension itself with white vestments, the Gloria, the Paschal Alleluia, the Credo, the Preface of the Ascension and the Proper Communicantes for the Ascension in the Canon. You may find them in a pre-1955 Missal such as the Saint Andrew Daily Missal and the Marian Missal from 1945.

For this season of Ascensiontide, Catholics are welcomed and encouraged to immerse themselves in the devotions appropriate for the season.  For example, during this season there are special prayers for the time between Ascension and Pentecost. We should consider printing these out and praying these each day of the Octave (see Catholic Culture or the Novena to the Holy Spirit).

While the Novus Ordo calendar unfortunately only has two octaves, traditional Catholics will be familiar with the idea of multiple overlapping Octaves. The practice of celebrating an Octave, while not only traced to the time spent by the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary awaiting the Paraclete, also has its origins in the Old Testament eight-day celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:36) and the Dedication of the Temple (2 Chronicles 7:9). Very truly, Christ did not come to abolish the Old Law but to fulfill it.

By the 8th century, Rome had developed liturgical octaves not only for Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas, but also for the Epiphany and the feast of the dedication of a church. After 1568, when Pope Pius V reduced the number of octaves (since by then they had grown considerably), the number of Octaves was still plentiful. Octaves were classified into several types. Easter and Pentecost had “specially privileged” octaves, during which no other feast whatsoever could be celebrated. Christmas, Epiphany, and Corpus Christi had “privileged” octaves, during which certain highly ranked feasts might be celebrated. The octaves of other feasts allowed even more feasts to be celebrated.

To reduce the repetition of the same liturgy for several days, Pope Leo XIII and Pope St. Pius X made further distinctions, classifying octaves into three primary types: privileged octaves, common octaves, and simple octaves. Privileged octaves were arranged in a hierarchy of first, second, and third orders. The Octave of the Ascension was a Privileged Octave of the Third Order.

According to Father Weiser, the Sunday within the Octave of the Ascension was, in the Middle Ages, called the Sunday of Roses because it was the custom to strew the pavement of churches with roses, as a homage to Christ who ascended to Heaven.

The Venetian Tradition

Fisheaters relates a great regional customs for this Feast Day, which was previously shared in connection with Epiphanytide:

Something else wonderful happens in Italy on the Feast of the Ascension and the days following: in Venice, there is a clock tower in the Piazza San Marco. This marvelous clock, made in A.D. 1499 (and recently restored) indicates not only the minutes and hours, but the days, months, Zodiacal signs, and phases of the Moon as well. At the top of the tower are two large figures known as the Moors (“Mori”), who signal the hour by striking a large bell. Underneath them is a large, golden lion – the symbol of St. Mark, patron of Venice. Underneath this is a niche which holds a figure of Our Lady and her Son. Twice a year –  on the Feast of the Epiphany and during the festivities surrounding the Ascension (known as “la Festa della Sensa” in Venice) – doors on either side of Our Lady open up, and out come the three Magi, led by an angel. The angel and Kings make their way around Our Lady and Jesus, the angel regaling them with his trumpet, and the Kings bowing and removing their crowns.

Feast Day of Our Lady, Queen of The Apostles

During Ascentiontide as we prepare to celebrate the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary at Pentecost, there is a lesser known feast day to our Lady on the Saturday after Ascension Thursday.

This is the feast day of Our Lady, Queen of Apostles, is one of the Masses in Some Places that were a part of the Traditional Catholic Missal. This feast day, in addition to being kept on the Saturday within the Octave of the Ascension, is kept annually on September 5th. While not often said, we can make it a point to reflect on the spirituality of our Lady as Queen of the Apostles on this day. Father Lawrence G. Lovasik reflects on this feast day with the following thoughts:

Mary, Mother of God, at Pentecost you were with the Apostles, preparing for the Holy Spirit the promised Gift of your Son. Prayer was the soul of your preparation, and the Apostles were inspired by your example. When the Holy Spirit descended, you received the richest outpouring of His graces. Your holiness was due to this Spirit of Love, to Whose guidance you abandoned yourself. All that He could give, He bestowed upon you, His Immaculate Bride. On the day of Pentecost the Apostles’ worldly views about the Kingdom of God on earth were banished by the Spirit of God, and holiness replaced their imperfections, but no-taint of the slightest sin had to be removed from your virginal soul. He overshadowed you at the Annunciation and on Pentecost He made your heart a furnace of divine love.

Not only did the Holy Spirit pour into your soul a fullness of grace, but He entrusted to you, the Mother of the human family, the distribution of all grace. What was true of the effusion of the Holy Spirit on that day, is equally true of every outpouring of grace: God gives nothing to earth without causing the gift to pass through your hands.

Ascension Day Food

Finally, no discussion of customs would be appropriate with food. Father Weisner notes why the faithful ate fowl on this day:

It was a widespread custom in many parts of Europe during the Middle Ages to eat a bird on Ascension Day, because Christ “flew” to Heaven. Pigeons, pheasants, partridges, and even crows, graced the dinner tables. In western Germany bakers and innkeepers gave their customers pieces of pastry made in the shapes of various birds. In England the feast was celebrated with games, dancing, and horse races. In central Europe, Ascension Day is a traditional day of mountain climbing and picnics on hilltops and high places.

Yet he continues by noting several superstitions connected with Ascension Day, reminding us that anything we do must be connected with the true Faith and not deviate into superstitions against the First Commandment:

Popular superstitions threaten dire punishments to anyone who works on Ascension Day in field and garden, but especially to women who do their sewing on the feast. Any piece of garment that has been touched by a needle on the Ascension will attract lightning before long, and many stories are told of how people were killed that way. In some sections of Europe it is said that weddings should not be held on Ascension Day because one of the partners would die soon. Those who go bathing in rivers and lakes are exposed to the danger of drowning more than on other days. It seems that all these superstitions are relics of the pre-Christian lore of the demons of death who were said to roam the earth and kill people around this time of the year

The Mozarbic Breviary provides a fitting and beautiful prayer for this time:

O Jesus! the power and wisdom of God! who coming down from heaven for our sake and for our salvation, deignedst to clothe thyself in human flesh, that, by a most merciful union, thou mightest clothe us with thy divinity, and that, by ascending into heaven, thou mightest enrich with immortality the mortality thou assumedst by descending upon our earth: grant, we beseech thee, by the merit of this day’s solemnity, (whereon we rejoice at and desire to imitate thine Ascension) that we may acknowledge the favour of this most loving dispensation, by paying to thy mercy the only homage in our power, the offering of our praise; and awaiting thy second coming which is to console us with joys eternal.


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