The Feast of the Ascension traditionally occurs 40 days after Easter. Since it falls on a Thursday, it’s often called Ascension Thursday.
Recently, with the transition of our work lives from an older, more flexible agrarian routine to modern industrialization’s insistance on time clocks, 24/7 availability of services, and the challenges of two income households, child care, school schedules and after school activities, taking time as a community of faith to stop and celebrate this feast has become a luxury available only to the fortunate few. Recognizing this reality in the lives of the faithful, bishops in many dioceses have allowed celebration of the feast to be moved to the Sunday before Pentecost. To the extent that this allows more people to be consciously aware of and celebrate the feast, I see this as a good step. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the feast actually falls today.
The feast of the Ascension marks the day on which Jesus was taken up to heaven (Lk 24:50-53). After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared on many occasions to his followers. He continued to teach them and explain all that had happened through His passion and why it had to happen as it did. At the end of both the Gospels of Mark and of Luke, as well as the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that Jesus instructed His followers to go out as witnesses of all they had seen and heard, calling all peoples to turn from sin and accept baptism and the forgiving love of God. Then Jesus told His followers just before He was taken from their sight, to go back to Jerusalem and pray, waiting to receive the “promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4), the Holy Spirit who would give them power from on high to become His witnesses.
These events happened nine days before the Jewish feast of Pentecost. The apostles, Mary and other followers of Jesus did indeed return to Jerusalem. They gathered in the upper room where they had been staying after the Resurrection and devoted themselves to prayer. (They also took care of some administrative details – including selecting another person to take the place of Judas Iscariot. But that’s another part of the story not critical to today’s feast!)
On the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on them and the Church was born as Peter and the others fearlessly stepped out and witnessed to the world regarding all they had seen and experienced. The time of the Holy Spirit had begun.
A particularly important thing to remember regarding the Ascension, is that it is the beginning of a period of prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – a period of prayer mandated by Jesus Himself.
Since those early times in the church, we have developed a tradition of novenas, nine days of prayer with a particular focus or request. Typically the novena is addressed to a specific saint, requesting the saint’s intercession with God – much like asking a big brother or sister for help with a problem.
In the case of this first novena, the focus was much more direct. The novena from the Ascension to Pentecost is addressed directly to the Holy Spirit. With the early followers of Jesus, we too can pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our lives and world.
Imagine what could happen if we truly believe that we are to go out and be His witnesses — speaking His words of challenge and comfort, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick, acting as if a better world could really exist and all could really love and care for each other! This can only happen if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, clothed in power from on high. It is a daunting calling, but one that is implicit in our baptism and confirmation. We sing the ancient hymn, “Come Holy Ghost, Creator blest, and in our hearts take up thy rest…” It’s a beautiful prayer and truly dangerous if we take it to heart, meaing and believing what we are asking.
A younger hymn, from Zimbabwe, is also particularly appropriate for our novena to the Holy Spirit in these coming nine days. “If you believe and I believe and we together pray, the Holy Spirit must come down and set God’s people free. And set God’s people free, and set God’s people free; The Holy Spirit must come down and set God’s people free.” Free to be His witnesses — His hands, feet, voice and heart in our world.
Let’s again join together in these coming days to ask the Holy Spirit for a new outpouring of power into our lives and times. Pray with me with hope and confidence, trusting that with God’s help everything is possible, because “If you believe and I believe and we together pray, the Holy Spirit must (will) come down and set God’s people free.”