We find the Ascension narrative in the first part of the Acts of the Apostles (1:1-11). As we also know, Acts is not a singular “book” standing its own right; rather, it is the second part of a greater account whose first part is the Gospel of Luke. The Luke-Acts text was meant to be a coherent whole, and if we read the first chapter of Acts immediately after reading the last of Luke, we notice the apparent link between the two.
What we today call “Acts” begins with the Ascension; the transition from the Gospel era to the Apostolic age is marked by Christ’s ascent into heavenly glory.
Luke himself alludes the fullness of this heavenly glory in his narrative; Christ is “taken up in a cloud”. For Jews, the word “cloud” signifies the presence (shekinah) of God himself. This is the same cloud which guided the Jews by day across the desert of Egypt to the Red Sea, the cloud which hovered over the summit of Sinai to which Moses ascended, and the cloud which rested first in the Tent during the 40-year wandering and later in the Temple of Jerusalem. The fact that Jesus himself is taken up into a cloud manifests his intimacy and identity of God himself.
The words of the angel to the astounded Apostles (“as you saw him go, so shall you see him come”) are celestial confirmation of the prophetic words which the Lord spoke to his Apostles while he walked with them: “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27; cf. Mark 14:62, Matthew 26:64).
Every year, the indomitable Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (Fr. Z) posts on his blog his annual rant concerning that which he jestingly calls “Ascension Thursday Sunday”. Succinctly and effectively, he highlights the inherent absurdity behind the phenomenon of movable feasts, especially in the case of feasts like Epiphany and Ascension, when the Church seemingly disregards both biblical testimony and centuries of tradition by transferring midweek solemnities to the following Sunday. At the root of such a practice is a lowering of the standards of faith in a wrongheaded attempt to make Christian praxis more palatable to modern man. What this implies, however, is that modern man cannot be bothered by the hassle of a weekday Mass, and that instead of confronting him with the challenge of faith, the Church considers today’s “concrete situations” (to use the secularizing language of certain Cardinals) as having more weight than the feasts themselves.
This implication finds its way into the construction of the Novus Ordo Mass itself, and we glimpse it by comparing the two Collects of the day’s Mass. The second option, which Fr. Z strangely considers “less interesting”, is in fact of most ancient origin and the only Collect of the feast in the older Missal. Yet despite its very recent construction, Fr. Z. seems to appreciate the first option in the Novus Ordo because it uses Pope St. Leo the Great as a direct textual source.
Fac nos, omnipotens Deus, sanctis exsultare gaudiis, et pia gratiarum actione laetari, quia Christi Filii tui ascensio est nostra provectio, et quo processit gloria capitis, eo spes vocatur et corporis.
Gladden us with holy joys, almighty God, and make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving, for the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation, and, where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.
The more traditional Collect (the second option in the Novus Ordo) runs as follows:
Concede, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus: ut, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum, Redemptorem nostrum, ad caelos ascendisse credimus; ipsi quoque mente in caelestibus habitemus.
Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that we who believe that your Only Begotten Son, our Redeemer, ascended this day to the heavens, may in Spirit dwell already in heavenly realms.
As interesting as the former Collect may be (considering its textual parallels to St. Leo’s Sermon 73), the older Collect explicitly points to the fact that Christ “ascended this day“, thus making it’s recitation appropriate only on the true date of the Ascension, that is, Ascension Thursday, 40 days after Easter, in accordance with Scripture. The fact that this ancient prayer is effectively thrown to the back of the bus in favor of a recently constructed prayer (even if adapted from a sainted Pope’s sermon) is quite telling of the contemporary situation of the Church. The modern Collect, only added to the Missal in 2002, speaks in general terms, with no reference to the day of the feast itself; yet in the modern Missal it takes pride of place. It is as if the Church expects the feast to be transferred! Such an expectation is, of course, absurd. The Catholic Memes Facebook page, with wonderful sarcasm, expresses why:
Either the Ascension is a sacrosanct and mysterious truth of the faith, or it is not. If it is, let it be celebrated at the time appointed by Holy Writ, and not at the time chosen by those of lukewarm faith.