The observance of this solemnity is of great antiquity. Eusebius seems to hint at the already established celebration of it in the 4th century. At the beginning of the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo says that it is of Apostolic origin, and he speaks of it in a way that indicates it was the universal observance of the Catholic Church long before his time. In any case, representations of the Ascension are found in diptychs and frescoes dating to the 5th century. Hymns for this feast are found in the Georgian Chantbook of Jerusalem which also dates to the 5th century.
The celebrations of the solemnity have historically been on a Thursday, 40 days after the Resurrection – although there are ancient documents that indicate in some places it was celebrated in conjunction with Easter or with Pentecost.
This coming Sunday is either the 7th Sunday of Easter with the Ascension of the Lord having been celebrated on Thursday – or the Ascension has been transferred to Sunday, replacing the 7th Sunday of Easter. The older “Thursday” celebration is celebrated in the archdioceses and dioceses within the Ecclesiastical Provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha, and Philadelphia. The other diocese transferred the celebration to Sunday in 1998 and 1999.
Why the change? This is a subject of great debate. Some say that, in recent history, attendance at Ascension Thursday Masses had been steadily declining. Others note that it is more the difference between metropolitan areas with large population centers (in the Northeast US) and the far less densely populated areas of the nation in the Middle Atlantic, South, Midwest, mountain states, and west coast where people live greater distances from their parishes. In any case the Code of Canon Law (p.1246 §2) permits bishops to transfer a holy day of obligation to a Sunday.
What is an ecclesiastical province? In general, an ecclesiastical province consists of several dioceses, one of them being the archdiocese, headed by a metropolitan bishop or archbishop who has ecclesiastical jurisdiction over all other bishops of the province. For example, Philadelphia includes Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Allentown, Erie, Altoona, Pittsburg, Scranton, and Greenburg. What one should notice, except for Omaha, all are northeastern areas of the United States. The majority of United States dioceses celebrate on Sunday, as does the Diocese of Arlington – and so the readings for this coming Sunday can be found here.
Image credit: Jesus’ ascension to Heaven depicted by John Singleton Copley in Ascension (1775) Public Domain