Each year as the Easter Season nears its culmination with the Solemnity of Pentecost, the Office for Worship receives a least a couple of phone calls with the same question: When is the Ascension this year? This may seem like a simple question; however, if you are paging through a missalette in the pew or look at the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), you will find that there are two possible answers to this question.
The scriptural reference for the date of the Ascension is found in the Acts of the Apostles (1:3) which reads, “He [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Therefore, beginning with Easter Sunday, the fortieth day after the Resurrection falls on Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter.
Since 1999, with the permission of the Vatican, and in accordance with the Canon 1246, §2 of the Code of Canon Law, which states, “…the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See,” most dioceses in the United States, transfer the celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension to the following Sunday, usurping the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
The transference of a solemnity is left to the decision of each Ecclesiastical Province by a two-thirds affirmative vote of the bishops in that province. An ecclesiastical province is essentially a large archdiocese and all the other suffragan dioceses bound to it. In the United States, there’s one ecclesiastical province per state, with a few exceptions. All of the ecclesiastical provinces in the United States have chosen to transfer the celebration expect for Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Omaha. With the exception of Omaha, each of these provinces is one of the oldest Catholic provinces in the United States, and perhaps one of the reasons why they choose not to transfer the Ascension to Sunday.
Transferring the Ascension to Sunday is not new. It’s part of a larger trend to transfer other solemnities to the following Sunday. Doing so allows greater exposure and more solemn celebrations among the faithful. In fact, there are two additional solemnities that are usually transferred in the United States for this very reason, but because their transference has been part of our liturgical calendars for so long, many people don’t even realize the solemnities have been transferred at all. The Solemnity of the Epiphany is transferred from January 6, twelve days after Christmas, to the Sunday between January 2-8. The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, “Corpus Christi,” is moved from Thursday after Trinity Sunday to the following Sunday.
A numbers game?
Let us put aside the transfer of the Ascension to the following Sunday for a moment and remember that on the fortieth day after the Resurrection, Christ ascended into Heaven. Since the earliest of times, the Church has celebrated the greatest solemnities by not restricting them to a single day, but by giving them a whole octave of days. In other words, the celebration is spread out for a whole week and renewed on the eighth day. The seven days, completed by the eighth, symbolize the totality of time and its perfection and transcendence into eternity. The week-long celebration also recalls the seven days of creation and is a basic unit of human life.
Easter is known as the “feast of feasts,” making it not only a day, but a season. Every Sunday is both the first day and the eighth day of a week, and is for us a day of rest and peace, but also a sign of hope in our own resurrection on the Last Day. The season of Easter is given both an octave of days, and an octave of weeks – seven times seven days – with the Solemnity of Pentecost on the fiftieth day after Easter. This rounds out the circle of seven times seven, which signifies our breaking out of subservience to time into the boundless, eternal joy of the children of God.
The fifty days of Easter are an answer to the forty days of Lent, which is symbolic of Jesus’ forty days in the desert and the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the desert. In the Old Testament, forty signified the age of the world. Forty is an intensification of four, which recalls the four corners of the earth and essentially the fallenness of the human race. The forty days of Lent prepare us for the fifty days of Easter – brokenness to completion – and the Lord’s Resurrection is at the axis of both. Through this arrangement of days, the Church has provided a profound interpretation of what Easter means and how we are to celebrate it.
Considering that forty prepares us for fifty, we can apply this to the Ascension falling on the fortieth day in order to prepare us for Pentecost on the fiftieth day. In addition to the numbers seven, eight, forty and fifty, the number nine is also significant because it is the length of time of a novena. “Novena” comes from the Latin word novem, which means nine, and is a period of nine days of preparation for a feast or other celebration. After the Ascension, there are nine days until Pentecost – the first novena! During these nine days the apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary were waiting for the fiftieth day, when Christ’s promise to send an Advocate is fulfilled.
Even though our Ecclesiastical Province transfers the Ascension to the following Sunday, marking the fortieth day after Easter in our personal lives of faith can help us prepare for the fiftieth. We can do this in small ways by renewing our Easter joy and uniting our hearts with Mary as we prepare for the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit!
While we are always willing to provide information about the liturgical norms of the Church, the best approach for parishioners to take when they want to find out more about their parish's liturgical practices is to consult with their own director of liturgy, worship committee, music director and pastor. These staff and committee members know the parish best and should be intimately familiar with the reasons for the choices they have made.
Bishops Committee on the Liturgy - Newsletter March 2001
In recent years the Secretariat for the Liturgy has received multiple inquiries concerning the care and cleansing of altar linens. The following article, approved by the Committee on the Liturgy at its March 19,2001 meeting, is provided for the information of those charged with the care of altar linens.
Whatever is set aside for use in the liturgy takes on a certain sacred character both by the blessing it receives and the sacred functions it fulfills. Thus, the cloths used at the altar in the course of the Eucharistic celebration should be treated with the care and respect due to those things used in the preparation and celebration of the sacred mysteries.
This brief statement reflects on the importance of reverently caring for altar linens which, because of their use in the liturgy, are deserving of special respect. These linens should be "beautiful and finely made, though mere lavishness and ostentation must be avoided." Altar cloths, corporals, purificators, lavabo towels and palls should be made of absorbent cloth and never of paper.
Altar linens are appropriately blessed according to the Order for the Blessing of Articles for Liturgical Use. The blessing of a number of such articles for liturgical use may take place "within Mass or in a separate celebration in which the faithful should take part."
Just as the altar is a sign for us of Christ the living stone, altar cloths are used "out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and the banquet that gives us his body and" By their beauty and form they add to the dignity of the altar in much the same way that vestments solemnly ornament the priests and sacred ministers. Such cloths also serve a practical purpose, however, in absorbing whatever may be spilled of the Precious Blood or other sacramental elements. Thus the material of altar cloths should be absorbent and easily laundered.
While there may be several altar cloths in the form of drapings or even frontals, their shape, size, and decoration should be in keeping with the design of the altar. Unless the altar cloths have been stained with the Precious Blood, it is not necessary that they be cleaned in the sacrarium. Care should be taken, however, that proper cleaning methods are used to preserve the beauty and life of the altar cloth. It is appropriate for those who care for sacred vessels, cloths and other instrumenta of the liturgy to accompany their work with prayer.
Sacred vessels containing the Body and Blood of the Lord are always placed on top of a corporal.
A corporal is spread by the deacon or another minister in the course of the preparation of the gifts and the altar. When concelebrants receive the Eucharist from the altar, a corporal is placed beneath all chalices or patens. Finally, it is appropriate that a corporal be used on a side table, and placed beneath the sacred vessels which have been left to be purified after Mass.
Because one of the purposes of the corporal is to contain whatever small particles of the consecrated host may be left at the conclusion of Mass, care should be taken that the transferral of consecrated hosts between sacred vessels should always be done over a corporal. The corporal should be white in color and of sufficient dimensions so that at least the main chalice and paten may be placed upon it completely. When necessary, more than one corporal may be used. The material of corporals should be absorbent and easily laundered.
Any apparent particles of the consecrated bread which remain on the corporal after the distribution of Holy Communion should be consumed in the course of the purification of the sacred vessels.
When corporals are cleansed they should first be rinsed in a sacrarium and only afterwards washed with laundry soaps in the customary manner. Corporals should be ironed in such a way that their distinctive manner of folding helps to contain whatever small particles of the consecrated host may remain at the conclusion of the Eucharistic celebration.
Purificators are customarily brought to the altar with chalices and are used to wipe the Precious Blood from the lip of the chalice and to purify sacred vessels. They should be white in color. Whenever the Precious Blood is distributed from the chalice, poured into ancillary vessels or even accidentally spilled, purificators should be used to absorb the spill. The material of purificators should be absorbent and easily laundered. The purificator should never be made of paper or any other disposable material.
Because of their function, purificators regularly become stained with the Precious Blood. It is, therefore, essential that they should first be cleansed in a sacrarium and only afterwards washed with laundry soaps in the customary manner. Purificators should be ironed in such a way that they may be easily used for the wiping of the lip of the chalice.
The Order of Mass calls for the washing of the hands (lavabo) of the priest celebrant in the course of the preparation of the gifts and the altar. Since it is his hands and not only his fingers (as in the former Order of Mass) which are washed at the lavabo, the lavabo towel should be of adequate size and sufficiently absorbent for drying his hands. Neither the color nor the material of the lavabo towel is prescribed, though efforts should be made to avoid the appearance of a "dish towel," "bath towel" or other cloth with a purely secular use.
Other cloths may also be used at Mass. A pall may be used to cover the chalice at Mass in order to protect the Precious Blood from insects or other foreign objects. In order that palls may be kept immaculately clean they should be made with removable covers of a worthy material which may be easily washed in the sacrarium and then laundered. Chalice veils either of the color of the day, or white may be fittingly used to cover the chalice before it is prepared and after it has been purified.
Disposal of Worn Altar Linens
Consistent with the disposal of all things blessed for use in the liturgy, it is appropriate that altar linens, which show signs of wear and can no longer be used, should normally be disposed of either by burial or burning.
The manner in which we treat sacred things (even those of lesser significance than the chalice, paten, liturgical furnishings, etc.) fosters and expresses our openness to the graces God gives to his Church in every celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, by the diligent care of altar linens, the Church expresses her joy at the inestimable gifts she receives from Christ's altar.