In my archdiocese (the densest in the country), we celebrate Ascension on Thursday, forty days after Easter and a novena before Pentecost. But in most of the wide United States, to make sure everyone can make it to Mass, they move it to Sunday: the Church is still figuring out how holy days work in a non-Catholic society. Since moving Ascension displaces the seventh and last Sunday in Easter, this sixth Sunday has the option of doing the seventh Sunday’s readings. But I’ll just comment on the ones scheduled for this day.
The first reading, from Acts 15, is important. It’s the first Council of the Church, the gathering at Jerusalem where “the apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church,” solve the first great pastoral-doctrinal problem: whether to make Gentile converts follow the Jewish law. This year it strikes me that, very much as in Paul’s letters, the central theme of Acts seems to be the complicated relationship between Christianity and Judaism: the prophets are the ones who tell us who Jesus is, and the Law tells us who we are supposed to be—but the Gospel takes us beyond the cultural limits of the Jewish covenant.
“There arose no little dissension and debate” about the following proposal: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” “Practice” is in Greek “ethos”; it is also translated “custom.” But “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities” (which mainly pertain to avoiding idol worship, as well as maintaining Old Law determinations about marriage).
This is an issue that doesn’t go away—that lives, in fact, even in perennial fights over things like when to celebrate the Ascension. There have always been those who want to reduce the Gospel to a human “custom,” to “practices.” A lot of “traditionalism” interprets Catholicism as a sort of Latin-language nationalism, a set of “practices,” a “culture.” Galatians and Colossians are about people in Paul’s time who wanted to reduce Christianity to Jewish cultural practices—but I am always amazed at how contemporary those letters are, how they sound like they’re speaking to people today who are more interested in “practices” than in Jesus Christ.
Look, I love the liturgy as much as anyone. But we’re missing something if we reduce the Ascension to how many days we can count between Easter and Pentecost. Something much bigger is going on.
Our reading from Revelation 21 continues our review of the final vision. John sees “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” It is not the earthly Jerusalem—or the earthly Rome. (Ironically, it is Rome, and the papacy, which keeps reminding us that our religion is more Catholic than Roman, more about Christ than about culture. But the culture warriors keep opposing the popes.)
This is not a religion we build with human hands, and with human culture. It is God. The Temple is replaced: “I saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.” It’s not about human customs and practices. It’s about letting our whole life be illuminated by the Lamb.
John’s Gospel is a bit loose about post-Resurrection chronology. He collapses Pentecost into Easter: Jesus gives the Holy Spirit on Easter night. In this account, Jesus appears the second time, to doubting Thomas, the week after Easter, and then the third and last time John reports is at the seaside, which concludes with Jesus twice referring to “until I come.” Before all that, when he told Mary Magdalene, “Do not touch me,” he said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father”—but it’s not clear when that happens.
On the other hand, before the Crucifixion, at the Last Supper, Jesus is already giving his Pentecost discourse, about it being better “if I go” “to prepare a place for you.” The whole paschal event seems to be his Ascension. It’s not about dates and numbers, it’s about the union of Father and Son.
He talks about “whoever loves me” and “will keep my word,” because “the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.” The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Paraclete, “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” It’s a matter of loving him so much that we cling to his words.
If we do, “we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” The word for dwelling, whence the Latin “mansiones” (from re-main), could be translated dwell, or remain, or abide. It’s one of John’s favorite words: we abide in him, he abides in us, stay with me. That’s the key, later in the reading, to “My peace I give to you” and “Do not let your hearts be troubled”: “I will come back to you.”
Christianity is not a matter of practices. Don’t water it down. Don’t over humanize it. Christianity is about dwelling with the God who dwells with us, the God who ascends to heaven and descends to us, in the Incarnation and in the sending of the Holy Spirit. It is about God with us. It has less to do with counting how many days till the next custom than with loving his Word, loving his commands, loving the people for whom he died—and loving him enough just to dwell with him.
Are there ways you leave God out of your Catholic practices?