Many years ago, I was at Mass with my school on the Feast of the Ascension. During his homily, the priest told the children that he asked one question to adults when they came to him looking to get married in the Catholic Church. The question was: “Name the four great Feast Days of the Church”.
In words which sounded scarily close to Education Scotland-speak, he said that all adults could name Christmas Day, and almost all could name Easter Sunday. Only some could name either the Ascension or Pentecost. The point the priest was making to the children (and to their teachers!) was how important it was to understand both the Ascension and Pentecost as part of the Easter season.
Why is this the case? Why is it that even for adult Catholics there is a tendency to overlook the significance of both these Feasts? How can we try to make our children and young peoplemore aware of the importance of these Feasts?
The first explanation lies in the fact that Easter is a movable feast, linked to the spring equinox and the lunar calendar. Easter can take place on a Sunday between 21 March and 25 April. As both the Ascension and Pentecost are dependent on the date of Easter Sunday, this means that both these feasts can occur within a wide range of dates. Pentecost, for example, usually takesplace between 10 May and 13 June! The fact that both the Ascension and Pentecost move around so much can make it difficult for all but the most committed of Catholics to remember their link to Easter Sunday.
A second explanation is the sheer length of the season of Eastertide. The season of Easter starts on Easter Sunday and lasts for fifty days, ending on the feast of Pentecost. Many adult Catholics are simply unaware of this, and of how and when the Ascension and Pentecost fit in to this bigger picture.
The Ascension is celebrated forty days after Easter Sunday, and Pentecost ten days after the Ascension, or fifty days after Easter Sunday. These are lengthy periods of time, during which it is all too easy to forget that we are still in the season of Eastertide. Our secular society marks Easter Sunday with a holidayweekend and chocolate eggs but it pays no recognition to the spiritual importance of Eastertide. Outwith the Church, Easter Sunday is therefore presented as the climax of the Easter celebrations rather than the beginning.
The tendency to overlook both the Ascension and Pentecost is also reinforced by the tradition in many countries to celebrate First Communions in May and June. Understandably, the celebrations of First Holy Communions are a source of great joy to whole parish and school communities. These celebrations are often one of highlights of the school calendar. One unintended consequence of this may be that we over-concentrate on sacramental preparation at the expense of knowledge and understanding of the season of Eastertide.
So how can we make our children more aware of the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, and indeed of the Easter season as a whole? A good place to start would be to make more explicitthe link between Easter Sunday, the Ascension and Pentecost, rather than assume that children make the connection for themselves. Make it clear that the Ascension is always celebrated on a Thursday, and Pentecost celebrated on a Sunday, and why.
Next, our children need greater awareness of the resurrection stories of Jesus and should know that Jesus appeared to his disciples on many occasions for forty days after Easter Sunday. Then, the story of the Ascension and Jesus’ return to his Father in heaven needs to be taught clearly, along with the impact this had on the apostles. The events of Pentecost Sunday ten days later would then make much more sense to the children when linked to what took place ten days previously.
As we celebrate during this current Eastertide, let us do all we can to make sure that the Ascension and Pentecost are no longer the “forgotten feasts” of the Easter season.