Ascensiontide Old & New

The ten days between the Ascension of Christ and the Day of Pentecost form a mini-season or sub-season called Ascensiontide.  There is debate between modern and traditionalist views of the calendar over just how independent this season is from Eastertide, and you can read about that here.  What one finds upon closer inspection, however, is that whether Ascensiontide should be considered part of Easter or a season in its own right, it is very strongly linked, liturgically, both to Easter and to Pentecost, marking the transition from one to the other, not unlike the transitional Pre-Lent Sundays of the old calendar.

At a length of ten calendar days, Ascensiontide has two “days” in the Prayer Book: Ascension Day (the Thursday in the 6th week of Easter) and the Sunday after Ascension Day.

Ascension Day

This day has not substantially changed from the traditional calendar to the 2019 Prayer Book.  The Collect is the same, and the two original lessons are among the 2019 options: Acts 1:1-14 and Mark 16:14-20 both speak of the ascension of Jesus and his last words to his disciples.  The 2019 Prayer Book adds Psalm 47 (or 110:1-5) and Ephesians 1:15-23, and also supplies Luke 24:44-53 as an alternative to the traditional Gospel from Mark.

For the Daily Office, the 1662 Prayer Book identified Ascension Day as one of the six days of the year that merited a unique set of Psalms: 8, 15, and 21 at Morning Prayer, and 24, 47, and 108 at Evening Prayer.  Psalm 47 is perhaps the most obvious ascension-related Psalm (“God has gone up with a triumphant shout!“) and thus is offered as the psalm for the Communion service in the modern lectionary.

Ascension Sunday

In both traditional and modern lectionaries, the Sunday after the Ascension shows signs of influence from both Eastertide and Ascension Day.

The Collect (same in old and 2019 prayer books) is thematically built on the same foundation as that for Ascension Day, but adds the element of looking ahead to Pentecost: “Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit” – a reference to the traditional Gospel for the day of Pentecost.  It’s lovely: we pray this prayer on one Sunday, as if with the original apostles-in-waiting, and then we hear it answered the following Sunday as the apostles experienced it too.

The lessons are rather more different.  The course of Epistle and Gospel lessons in the traditional Eastertide are continued on this day, ending in 1 Peter 4 and John 15.  The modern lessons also complete the modern Eastertide sequence: a different part of 1 Peter 4 or the end of 1 John 5 or Revelation 22; and a Gospel from John 17, which appropriately brings us Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity in preparation for the day of Pentecost.  Readings from the book of Acts continues as an Old Testament replacement option on this day: on two years of the cycle looking appropriately at Acts 1, and in Year C reading from chapter 16 to finish off the Eastertide sequence instead of addressing Ascensiontide.

Ascensiontide as a transition

Whether you choose to consider this period of time as the final of Easter’s 50 days or a distinct ten day season of their own, tradition both old and new connects this time fluidly to its predecessor (Easter) and its successor (Pentecost).  We move from the resurrection to the resurrection life to the ascension of Christ with our human nature to Jesus’parting blessing to us in the descent of the Holy Spirit, and this season marks the turning of the page between Easter and Pentecost.

As we observed the other day, this is a period of time that is ripe for quiet inward-focused prayer.  If your or your church doesn’t normally pray the Great Litany, this is an excellent time to make use of it.  This is a good time for special prayer meetings or vigils, for rest and discernment before the Lord.  Like the Apostles who spent this time in preparation and prayer before the explosive activity of Pentecost, it is good for us to seize times such as this for the same, preparation and prayer, before starting the next round of outward-focused activity that we normally like to think about at Pentecost.  This often lines up with the end of the academic school year, and may easily match the transition period for students between school work and summer jobs.  It may also be a good time to look inward at our Sunday School or Christian Education teachers and thank them for their labors and grant them some rest.

Hymn for Ascensiontide: See the conqu’ror

One of the things I really like about the 2017 hymnal is that it’s got about twelve hymns about the ascension.  It’s nice to have choices, rather than appoint the same couple every year, even if they are really good.  Despite that, I figured I should just stick to “one of the greats” and walk us through a classic ascension hymn, See the conqu’ror mounts in triumph.  It’s as if each verse brings in a different theological layer to this momentous Gospel event.

See the Conqu’ror mounts in triumph;
See the King in royal state,
Riding on the clouds, his chariot,
To his heav’nly palace gate.
Hark! the choirs of angel voices
Joyful alleluias sing,
And the portals high are lifted
To receive their heav’nly King.

This is focused on the kingship of Christ Jesus.  He is a conqueror, his ascension is a victory march, the heavens are opened to welcome him in.  Verse two is similarly awe-filled, but quite different.

He who on the cross did suffer,
He who from the grave arose,
He has vanquished sin and Satan;
He by death has spoiled his foes.
While he lifts his hands in blessing,
He is parted from his friends,
While their eager eyes behold him,
He upon the clouds ascends.

This is about the humanity of Jesus.  The conqueror and savior is a man – the one who suffered and died, the one who had friends.  The context of his death and resurrection is perhaps the most obvious place to start approaching the ascension (and probably is the overriding context by which many people deal with the ascension at all), and although it is the most ‘simple’, it is by no means unimportant.

Verse three may be my personal favorite.

Now our heav’nly Aaron enters,
With his blood, within the veil;
Joshua is come to Canaan,
And the kings before him quail;
Now he plants the tribes of Israel
In their promised resting place;
Now our great Elijah offers
Double portion of his grace.

The Old Testament imagery is out in full force!  Jesus is like Aaron: a great high priest; his ascension is his entering into the true holy of holies.  Jesus is like Joshua, leading God’s armies to inevitable victory.  Jesus is like Elijah, ascending into heaven but leaving behind a spiritual legacy that will surpass the scope of his own earthly ministry.  The three offices of Priest, King, and Prophet, as applied to Jesus, make their offerings in this verse.  Personally, I think we need more celebration of Christ’s priesthood, Ascensiontide is well-suited to that, and this verse is a good step in the right direction.

The final verse also touches upon the priesthood of Christ, if obliquely.

Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heav’nly places,
There with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
We by faith behold our own.

If verse 2 can be said to be focusing the ascension upon the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus, verse 4 brings in the context of his incarnation.  Because Jesus is both God and man, and because Jesus has bodily ascended into the heavenly places at the right hand of the Father, we can say in no uncertain terms that humanity is enthroned with God!  He took on our flesh in order that there might be communion between the divine and humanity; it’s a two-way street.  He shares our sufferings, we share his glory.  He shares our death, we share his victory.  So we sing the great mystery of the ascension: we are seated with him on the throne!

This reinforces and echoes the Scripture lessons from Ascension Day, and the Collects from both Ascension Day and Sunday.  We’ll take a closer look at those tomorrow.

This is not when the disciples were scared

We’re sort of cheating today… this isn’t liturgical advice so much as it is Bible-teaching and preaching advice.  Now that we’re in Ascensiontide and Pentecost is approaching, you need to make sure you don’t mess this up for your congregations: this is not when the disciples were hiding and scared.  I see this error on the internet almost every year, and it’s even in my sons’ otherwise-pretty-good children’s Bible.  After Jesus ascended into heaven the disciples were not hiding behind locked doors in fear, wondering what was to happen next.  The biblical account we have of these ten days is Acts 1.  There we read of the ascension of Jesus following his final instructions:

to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So while yes, the disciples were waiting for the Holy Spirit to descend, they were not hiding away and frightened.  Furthermore, there were not waiting passively either, but actively preparing for that gift from on high.  In particular:

All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.… So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”

They then proceeded to identify who the new twelfth apostle would be, chose Matthias, and ordained him so.  (Some modern calendars place St. Matthias Day on May 14th, which generally lands around this time of year, making a stronger link between his story and its situation in the time between the Ascension and Pentecost.  Our calendar, however, keeps him in a more traditional date, February 24th.)  So, far from scared and hiding, the apostles were active during these days between Ascension and Pentecost; make sure you don’t misrepresent them in your Pentecost sermon!

Additionally this is worth noting because the “activity” and “mission” that is frequently brought up regarding Pentecost is often presented at the expense of the quiet prayer, preparation, and planning that went on in the days before.  We must be sure we present a healthy spirituality; one that not only pushes out “outwards” towards ministry and mission, but also equally draws us “inward” to worship and prayer.  That is one of the purposes of a Customary like this one, after all, to help the church order her prayers in a healthy manner so to under-gird a fruitful Christian life for all her members.

Learning from the Liturgy: Ascension Day

Happy Ascension Day, everyone!
Here’s what I wrote for my congregation last year about this holy day:

Leorningcnihtes boc

Ascension Day is perhaps the most under-celebrated important holiday in the calendar.  Representing one of the lines of the Creeds (“he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”), this holiday marks a significant turning point in the Gospel story and sets the stage for how the Christian’s relationship with God is defined.  We often think of it as an awkward point between the Resurrection of Jesus (Easter) and the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), but even in itself the Ascension is a major event.  What I’m setting out to do in this post is draw from the various Scriptural and traditional resources of the Church’s liturgy to explore some of the basic teachings and implications of this great and underappreciated day in the year.

The Event of the Ascension

Christ’s ascension is described in three books: Mark, Luke, and Acts.

In Mark’s Gospel…

View original post 2,092 more words

Eastertide: 40 days or 50?

The length of the Easter season is one of those subjects that can start internet fights.  Some say it’s 50 days long, beginning on Easter Day and ending on the Day of Pentecost.  Others retort that it’s 40 days, beginning on Easter Day and ending with the Ascension.  Meanwhile, perhaps the majority of church-goers look on in bewilderment or bemusement.  Why does it matter?  What’s the big deal?  Surely there are bigger fish to fry.

Let’s explore this debate in chronological order, so we can see how this disagreement came about, and why it matters to those who argue about it.

The Classical Prayer-Book Tradition

The changing of the seasons were not marked out quite so overtly in the old prayers books as they are in the new.  The Sunday Collects and Lessons were not typically marked out into season-based sections like they are in the 2019 book, so you had to rely upon the specific “name” of each Sunday, and the short list of Proper Prefaces early in the Communion prayers.  In both cases, Easter and Ascension are treated separately.  This sets out a demarcation: Eastertide ends when Ascension Day kicks in.  Thus we get images like this from Enid Chadwick’s beloved bookMy Book of the Church’s Year:

19

Note, “THE GREAT FORTY DAYS”… that’s Eastertide.

The emphasis this takes is on the gospel narrative of events: Jesus was raised from the dead, met with his disciples at various times, and ascended to the right hand of the Father 40 days later.  This also lines up the calendar with the Apostles’ Creed: “the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand…”  In the ascension we see Jesus as Priest, making intercession for us, and Jesus as King, seated at the right hand of God.  It is a festal season, and closely related to Easter, but it takes on a theological emphasis that is distinct from Easter before it and Pentecost after it.

The Modern (or modernist?) Prayer-Book Tradition

The 1979 Prayer Book (and probably others like it) changed this up quite dramatically.  First of all, the name “Sunday after the Ascension” was changed to “the 7th Sunday of Easter”.  Ascensiontide still got its own Proper Preface, but a new feature of the liturgy – the opening acclamation – was provided for various seasons of the year, and the Easter acclamation (Alleluia, Christ is risen / The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!) was appointed for the entire stretch from Easter to Pentecost.  Ascension Day and Ascensiontide were not removed from the calendar, but they were rolled into the Easter season, turning “the great forty days” into “the great fifty days.”

Now, there is a biblical precedent for this perspective: two of the primary Old Testament feasts (Passover and Tabernacles) are fifty days apart, and became the Christian Easter and Pentecost.  By emphasizing the fifty days, instead of the forty plus ten, the new calendar system highlights the Old Testament precedent for the Gospel.

The 2019 Prayer-Book Tradition

What we receive in the 2019 Prayer Book is something of a mixed bag when it comes to the length of Easter.  As usual, Ascension still has its own Preface.  Like the 1979 book, Ascensiontide has no acclamation of its own; it still gets the Easter call-and-response.  But the name of the Sunday in this season is back to “The Sunday after Ascension,” so there’s room for debate if it counts as Easter or not.  Room for debate, that is, until you read the calendar rubrics on page 689.  When discussing days of discipline, denial, and special prayer, it says:

The weekdays of Lent and every Friday of the year (outside the 12 Days of Christmas and the 50 days of Eastertide) are encouraged as days of fasting. Ember Days and Rogation Days may also be kept in this way.

This rather seals the deal: the 2019 Prayer Book sets forth a 50-day Eastertide.

HOWEVER,

Unlike the 1979 Prayer Book, there is a nuance, or a balance: the 7th Sunday of Easter is not “the seventh Sunday of Easter,” but the “Sunday after the Ascension.”  So although the “season” is still “Eastertide” in one sense, it has entered into a different phase: new Sunday nomenclature, new Proper Preface.

So if you’re a “50 days of Easter” kind of person, pay this balance (not to mention our historical tradition!) more careful attention.  We are apparently encouraged to use the 50-day language, according to our calendar rubrics.  But the Sunday after the Ascension is informed more by Ascension Day than by Easter Day.  Whether you call that ten day period the last part of Eastertide or Ascensiontide, be sure to afford it the distinct theological and Gospel-narrative emphasis it was meant to communicate.  On that Sunday, tell people “Christ is risen!” is no longer just about his resurrection, but about his rising bodily into heaven.  Make sure the Easter songs and hymns give way to songs and hymns about the ascension of Christ.  Crown him with many crowns and Hail the day that sees him rise are perhaps the two most famous examples.

If you want to read more about Ascension Day and its mini-season (or subset of Easter, if you insist), click here!  In my experience this is one of the most under-rated parts of the church year, and it has much to offer.

Reading Acts at this time of year

We saw a few weeks ago how the book of Acts has a prominent place in the modern Communion lectionary through Easter week.  We’ve seen that the book of Acts may be read from in place of the Old Testament lesson through Easter season.  Now it’s time to look at why Acts shows up at this time of year, in the Communion lectionary, and at none other time.

The book of Acts holds a unique position in the canon of Scripture.  It is not an Epistle, nor is it a Gospel.  It’s like the Epistles in that it’s looking at the life of the Church after Jesus ascended; it’s like the Gospels in that it’s a collection of narratives.  Its very introduction makes it out to be a sort of sequel to the Gospel according to Saint Luke.  Ultimately its literary contribution to the Bible is much more like the historical books of the Old Testament – showing us the power and presence of God in the world through his people.  That likeness, perhaps, is why the book of Acts is almost always provided in place of the Old Testament lesson in the Communion lectionary.

As for the time of year… Acts has a particular focus on the life of the Church immediately after the Gospel work of Christ Jesus.  It re-tells the story of his ascension, it tells the story of the Day of Pentecost, and provides first-hand insight into the immediate history of a few of the apostles, as well as some of the missionary and church-planting ministry of St. Paul and others.  As the great feast of Easter (due in part to the ancient custom of holding baptisms at the Easter Vigil) has a particular liturgical emphasis on new life in Christ, it was only natural that the book of Acts came to be a go-to book in the season following.  Let’s take a look at how the book of Acts is read in the ACNA Sunday Communion lectionary:

Year A

Easter II – 2:14a, 22-32 – Peter preaching Christ from the Old Testament
Easter III – 2:14a, 36-47 – Peter preaching repentance unto faith in Christ
Easter IV – 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60 – diaconate established, Stephen martyred
Easter V – 17:1-15 – Paul is attacked for preaching the Gospel to Greeks as well as Jews
Easter VI – 17:22-34 – Paul preaches to the Gentiles
after Ascension – 1:1-14 – the ascension of Jesus

Year B

Easter II – 3:12a, 13-15, 17-26 – Peter preaching repentance unto faith in Christ
Easter III – 4:5-14 – Peter and John examined by the Jews for healing in the name of Jesus
Easter IV – 4:23-37 – the church rejoices and grows in generosity
Easter V – 8:26-40 – Philip preaches to and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch
Easter VI – 11:19-30 – the church grows among Gentiles and is generous abroad
after Ascension – 1:15-26 – the replacement of Judas with Matthias

Year C

Easter II – 5:12, 17-22, 25-29 – the apostles are arrested for preaching Christ
Easter III – 9:1-19a – Saul (to be Paul) converts on the road to Damascus
Easter IV – 13:14b-16, 26-29 – Paul preaches Christ mostly from the Old Testament
Easter V – 13:44-52 – Paul is abused for his conviction to preach to the Gentiles
Easter VI – 14:8-18 – Paul and Barnabas heal a cripple
after Ascension – 16:16-34 – Paul exorcises a demon, is imprisoned, and preaches to his jailer

Noting the Patterns

If you just look at the chapter and verse numbers, it’s hard to see there’s any rhyme or reason to these tours through Acts.  But when you note what those readings contain, similar contours can be traced in each of the three years of the lectionary cycle.  The first three Sundays mostly follow a pattern of preachingresistancetriumph & growth.  Easter V and VI then deal with the spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles, typically to the chagrin and anger of the Jewish synagogue members.

The odd Sunday in this sequence is the Sunday after the Ascension.  In Year A it just repeats the Acts 1 lesson from Ascension Day; in Year B it (sensibly) deals with something that occurred between the ascension and Pentecost.  But in Year C it seems to be rolled into the Eastertide progression of readings from Acts, noting some of Paul’s ministry (and abuse) among the Gentiles.

Advice

When preparing for Eastertide and the Sunday after Ascension, the preacher(s) ought to make a decision: either commit to using the Acts readings each Sunday along the way, or commit to using none of them during this period.  These readings are not paired with the Gospel or Epistle, much less the Collect of the Day, but form a sequence of five or six Sundays exploring the spread of the Gospel from the apostles to the Jews to the Gentiles.  Whether they are the preaching focus or not, they form a sequence that ought to be carried through from start to finish, if they are to be used at all.

In my case, I was committed this year to preaching the “Epistle” texts from Revelation, so I opted not to use the Acts lessons, preferring to have OT lessons that would match the Gospels so there’d be more unity to the liturgy on a given day.

Whatever you decide is appropriate, be sure you stick with it through the season to maximize the liturgical benefit, one way or the other!