Thursday, May 13, 2010
The following is my editorial on behalf of the ministerial association for the local newspaper today. (As a personal note, this is my liturgical ordination anniversary. I was ordained on the Feast of the Ascension, which floats around on the regular calendar.)
What piques the interest of various Christian communities in terms of the holidays they want to celebrate is always fascinating. Candy and bunnies for the celebration of Easter are available before Ash Wednesday even begins nowadays. Americans, likewise, cannot get enough of Christmas, as yuletide music and decorations begin making appearances at Halloween or even sooner. Christmas and Easter are simply holidays that are celebrated with great fanfare.
Most Christians in this country are usually shocked to find out that Christianity got along just fine for the first thousand years without Christmas being a major Church holiday. If you do not believe this, do a Google search sometime for artwork depicting Christmas or the Nativity scene. You will find very little Christian art from the 1st Millenium of Christianity that depicts the events associated with the birth of Jesus in the traditional Christmas story. The "Christ mass" existed, but the Feast of the Annunciation to Mary was the major holiday concerning the coming of Jesus that captured the celebratory hearts and minds of Christian liturgy and artwork for the first thousand years. Not until Saint Francis of Assisi largely invented the traditional "manger scene" around the year 1200 did Christmas really become a holiday of any central, cultural, or theological importance in the West.
Other important holidays of the Christian year languish away in obscurity or are forgotten completely. For instance, today is the 40th Day after Easter Sunday which commemorates the Ascension of Jesus into heaven after his earthly ministry, death, and resurrection. This holiday was, like the Annunciation, a relatively central holiday in the first millineum of Christianity. In the early centuries, Ascension Day was celebrated with a parade around town, symbolizing Jesus' journey to the Mount of Olives before his Ascension. Afterwards, there would be town fairs and grand feasting.
Ascension Day has sadly fallen into disuse in most churches today or has at least been pushed to the margins. Most churches that do recognize it will celebrate the day on the Sunday after Ascension Day, and then usually only as an afterthought. Ascension Day has been largely forgotten or glossed over for various reasons by many Christian communities, not the least of which being outright institutional embarrassment in some denominations. The idea of the Church celebrating a holiday commemorating Jesus ascending into the clouds is believed by some to be hard for many modern people in the scientific age to swallow. The bible does relate the story; and, thus, many denominations do not want to purge the day or the concept entirely.
This attitude begs the question of how the Ascension of Jesus is any less believable than the ideas of God becoming Incarnate or the very Resurrection itself. Our society still loves to annually put Jesus back in the manger scene at Christmas or drag him through the brutalities of Holy Week. And yet, somehow, the gift to us of the story of the Ascension embarrasses "modern" sensibilities. Before we look down our noses at the notion of the Ascension as some leftover vestige of the Dark Ages, perhaps we should allow Ascension Day to challenge our worldview. While most modern people no longer believe in heaven above and hell beneath us, perhaps Ascension Day reminds us that our modern and scientifically accurate one-dimensional universe has impoverished us for if God can not even ascend to something higher, how can the fragile hopes and dreams that we have for ourselves and our children ever possibly aspire to anything better or higher than the flat reality in which we dwell?