I do like a movable Feast.
Since Easter is set based on the moon (and I quote “In 325CE the Council of Nicaea established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox.” – from the popular-in-my-house website timeanddate.com), Ascension (40 days after Easter) and Pentecost (50 days after Easter) shift their calendar dates each year.
This year the Feast of the Ascension is May 10th, but next year – who knows! (Okay, Google knows…but my day-to-day awareness doesn’t know.).
When a Feast is remembering an event in Jesus’ life like this one, I like when it comes with that not-knowing. The wonder of it all is more…wondrous…when I’m not counting down the days at the same time every year.
(Fun calendar side note, though – since Easter is always a Sunday, Ascension is always a Thursday. 40 Days is always 40 Days.)
The Ascension is when Jesus leaves the Apostles. He’s been with them after this Resurrection, and as unbelievable as that must have been for them, hanging with their Messiah after watching him die on a cross, it was still the relationship they were used to. Jesus being amazing. Jesus being on earth with them. Jesus teaching, saying cryptic things, sharing bread.
But after today, after he Ascends – it’s brand new. “As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”” (Acts 1:10-11).
We’ve been waiting with the Apostles for that Someday. This is when, as I feel it, we come into the story too. We Witness, We look up and strain our eyes, We wait. This is the Beginning of our church, this moment, to me. I take great comfort in the fact that the Apostles didn’t seem to know what to do or how it all was going to work either – none of us do.
Ascension kicks off a home-stretch of Feasting as well. Yes, all of Eastertide is a Great Feast, but Ascension to Pentecost is the last gasp of Feasting before the loooooong stretch of “Ordinary Time” – that big green pie piece in the circular liturgical calendar. Jesus’ time with us on earth is coming to an end – soon the Holy Spirit will descend, and we will set forth to do the work God has given us to do, eating Fiercely.
There are some fun traditions with this Feast (thanks, Wikipedia!):
– Triumphal processions with torches and banners outside the churches to commemorate the entry of Christ into heaven.
– The antiquarian Daniel Rock records the English custom of carrying at the head of the procession the banner bearing the device of the lion and at the foot the banner of the dragon, to symbolize the triumph of Christ in his ascension over the evil one (and can also be interpreted by analogy as the triumph of England over Wales).
– In some churches the scene of the Ascension was vividly reproduced by elevating the figure of Christ above the altar through an opening in the roof of the church. In others, whilst the figure of Christ was made to ascend, that of the devil was made to descend.
– In England it was once common for churches to “beat the bounds” on this day, and some continue the custom (e.g. the church of St Michael at the North Gate in Oxford). Members of the parish walk round the parish boundaries, marking boundary stones (e.g. by writing on them in chalk) and hitting them with sticks.
– In Venice the ceremony of the Wedding with the Sea was traditionally celebrated on the Feast of the Ascension, while in Florence the Feast was observed by having a dove slide down a string from the high altar of the cathedral to ignite a large decorative container filled with fireworks in front of the main entrance of the cathedral.
– In Portugal on “Wheatstalk Thursday”, small bundles of poppies and wheatstalks are picked in the fields and placed at home until next year, for good fortune.
For my family, I think we’re going to eat outside – it’s finally getting warm enough to picnic – so we can look up and up and up at the clouds as we eat. We can light our deck torches, and if I can find them from the 4th of July, maybe some sparklers after dinner. A Feast in how we eat, if not terribly specific on what we eat.