Dear Good People of Saint Mary,
Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday! Every year we find ourselves asked about this confusing combination of feasts, just when you think everyone has it figured out. So, for those who asked again this year, here is the explanation.
Although Ascension Thursday has traditionally been celebrated 40 days after the Resurrection of Jesus and nine days before Pentecost (hence, the novena), Ascension Thursday had become one of the least-attended holy days of obligation of the whole year. Not sure why—maybe following all the big feasts of Easter, perhaps people are starting to get busy on spring weekends. At any rate, a local calendar of holy days is determined by the local conference of bishops (for us, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), and the Church is not allowed to impose an “arbitrary” law that will cause so many of the faithful to sin gravely. The Conference transferred the obligation to the nearest Sunday, therefore, when the observance now is celebrated by a majority of dioceses in the United States.
The Diocese of Arlington has done this for ten years, now. But one of the things that I’ve struggled with is the fact that, with the readings for the Ascension of the Lord now read on what was the Seventh Sunday of Easter, those Seventh Sunday readings will never be read again. For me, who have dedicated so much of my life to Christian Unity, to lose the text of John 17:20-27 is nothing short of tragic in the life of the Church. For that reason, last weekend, we used the option of including those readings instead of those for the Sixth Sunday.
I was surprised to hear the number of people who came up to me after Mass and said that they had never heard that prayer before.
You see, the Gospel of John relates a very long prayer (the so-called “high-priestly prayer” of Jesus) in the time following the Last Supper and the institution of Eucharist. In the characteristic style of Saint John, it tends to go on for a while, repeating a lot, with language that seems to intertwine. Many find it difficult to read. If you imagine the anguish of Jesus in the garden, the anticipation of coming horror, you can almost read it as a direct narrative of what might have been the words that John heard Jesus, troubled, praying from nearby. Maybe John wasn’t actually the one sleeping at this moment after all. His words come in short bursts; imagine them with great pauses, anxious breathing, periods of silence waiting for a response from the Father.
Jesus picks this moment, after Eucharist and before Calvary and the Empty Tomb, to pray for us and the Unity that he wills for us. A unity that he begs the Father for, and Jesus knows how to pray and his will is perfectly aligned with the Father. He prays that we might be one:
“I pray not only for them (his Apostles), butalso for those who will believe in me through their word (that’s us), so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
“And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.
“Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me.
“I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.”
Imagine a reading this beautiful that people might have never heard before. I hope that if this the first time you hear it, you can recognize the love and longing in the voice of Jesus as he prays for you, for us, on that last night he was on this earth, living in the midst of the Paschal Mystery, between Table and Cross. That his prayer is that we might be One, a prayer that must certainly be possible through the Spirit of him and the Father. For so many of us, it is exactly this text that has gotten us so involved in the ecumenical movement. It must be heard. Like the Our Father, maybe we should memorize this one and pray it everyday!
God bless you.