ASCENSION DAY 1-1 falls next Thursday.
This important Feast of the Church is of very ancient origin. We find it mentioned in the
middle of the 4th Century by Eusebius, Bishop of Nicornedia — and before that century had ended it, was celebrated by the whole of the Christian world.
In ancient times a procession took place in Rome on Ascension Day. It was timed for mid-day and commemorated the apostles accompanying Our Blessed Lord to the Mount of Olives. In the procession the Pope. accompanied by his assistant clergy, walked from the Lateran to a shrine outside the walls of the city. There a service was held including the Gospel for Ascension Day.
QOON all over Christendom the custom of this Ascension Day procession and service was practised. Indeed as time went on the service became more elaborate.
In Germany two priests in the procession would lift on high a great cross. chanting as they did so, AArendo ad Patron (I go up to my Father). Later. dramas and sacred plays were enacted in the church on Ascension Day. During these plays they would lift on high a statue of the risen Christ—and so drawn by a rope it would disappear through the roof of the building.
During this ceremony the congregation would rise to their feet, stretching out their arms to the ascending figure — while they chanted prayers and sang hymns.
Johana von Bergausan (1362), a priest and poet, gives us a vivid account of one of these plays enacted at the Bavarian Monastery of Moosburg,
In the centre of the church, below a hole in the roof, a platform was set up. This platform was covered with flowers arranged on gaily coloured cloth. On the platform also stood a little mound 10 represent the Mount of Olives
on this was placed a statue of Christ holding high in his hands the standard of victory. From the roof of the church a rope was suspended—this was attached to a ring on the head of the wooden figure.
AFTER Vespers on the afternoon of Ascension Day a procession formed in the sacristy and moved solemnly towards the platform.
The procession was led by two boys, dressed as angels with wings on their backs and wreaths on their heads. They were followed by a young priest, who represented the widowed mother of Our Lord, for he was robed as were the widows in Palestine of lhat period. To the right and left of the young priest were two other priests. hare-footed and robed in Jewish mantles for they enacted St. Peter and St. John. Behind them again were ten other clerics, representing the remaining apostles.
The rear of the procession consisted of choristers and other priests all garbed in festive attire.
In front of the platform the Deacon chanted the Gospel for Ascension Day and the choir chanted the words of verse 17 in the 20th chapter of St. John's Gospel. "I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."
Later while the choir sang, Ascendit Deus in Altura Alleluia (God rose on high) the statue of the risen Christ was slowly pulled aloft. As it rose higher and higher figures of angels holding candles descended, as it were. down from Heaven to greet their ascending Lord, Thin silk to represent clouds was also hung from the roof and between these "clouds" the image of the Saviour slowly disappeared.
SHOWER OF FLOWERS
WITHIN a few moments a shower of flowers—roses, lilies, etc. dropped through the hole in the roof through which the figure had disappeared, the flowers were followed by wafers in the shape of "hosts". These, after the service, the school children gathered together with the flowers and were allowed to keep.
In describing the ending of the ceremony Fr. Berghausen says "the little ones collected the flowers and wafers which symbolise the various gifts of the Holy Spirit. The wafers indicate the presence of Christ in His eucharistic Body which remains with us, under the species of bread, to the end of time."
Until quite lately plays in the same manner were acted in churches in central Europe on Ascension Day.
LUTHER WAS SORRY
THE Lutherans, however, frowned on such ceremonials—calling the plays outrages and acts of blasphemy, though it was said that Luther himself was later to repent the
stoppage of them, telling his preachers that sacred pageants such as those presented by the early church "might furnish school children and young people with a presentation of Christian doctrine and Christian life."
In the Middle Ages it was a custom for the mid-day meal on Ascension Day to include some bird, game or poultry to commemorate how Our Lord, rose, as it were, on wings to Heaven.
In our own country the feast was often celebrated with horseracing. dancing and games. -while in central Europe it was a favourite day for the ascent of
mountains or indeed any high eminence.
One custom has survived through the centuries in the Catholic Church. After the reading of the Ascension Day gospel during Mass the Faster candle is extinguished. For the Forty days between Easter and Ascension Day it has stood next the High Altar, its flame as a symbol of the Risen Life of Our Blessed Lord. However, after the Ascension, when He had once again returned to His Father, His life on earth ended, it is put out and does not re-appear till Eastertide of the following year. As a fitting ending here is a short prayer written at the end of his poem on "The Passion of Our Lord" by an unknown poet of the Middle Ages. Jesus As to the skies Thou did'st arise Raise us.