This coming Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord, and parishes around the world have a vital decision to make: Do we extinguish the Paschal Candle on Ascension Day or on Pentecost?
This question may sound like a liturgist's version of the game, Trivial Pursuit, but there is an important biblical and theological lesson to be learned.
The traditional view is that the Paschal Candle is extinguished on Ascension Day. This view is described in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
From Holy Saturday until Ascension Day the paschal candle is left with its candlestick in the sanctuary, standing upon the Gospel side of the altar, and it is lighted during high Mass and solemn Vespers on Sundays. It is extinguished after the Gospel on Ascension Day and is then removed.One parish described their practice this way:
Our acolytes have been trained to stand by the Candle, wand in hand, as the Gospel lesson (Luke 24:44-53) is read. Just after these words: "Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven" the Candle is extinguished as the reader pauses. Then the final sentence of the Gospel is read: "And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God."But in parishes that follow more recent liturgical innovations, it has become the custom to leave the Paschal Candle lighted until Pentecost Sunday. The change was prescribed in the rubrics for Novus Ordo, the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969, after the Second Vatican Council. The change was subsequently adopted in other liturgical churches such as Anglicans and Lutherans that had liturgical renewal movements during the 1970's. Traditional Anglicans, among others, have opposed this change.
The Physical Reality of the Incarnation
The theological trend that has coincided with these liturgical revisions has been to spiritualize Christ at the expense of his humanity. The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, which takes place on January 1, marks the day when Jesus, in accordance with Jewish tradition, would have been presented for ritual circumcision.
Making a Feast of the day when Jesus was circumcised serves to underscore the physical humanity of Jesus as well as the Incarnation: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). The circumcision of Jesus has traditionally been seen as the first time the blood of Christ was shed, and thus the beginning of the process of the redemption of humanity, as well as a demonstration that Christ was fully human, and also of his obedience to Biblical law.
However, more recent liturgical practice has been to make January 1 the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. In the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (USA) since 1979, January 1, is now called as the "Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
In the Church of England, the calendar of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer stipulates a festival "The Name of Jesus" to be observed on August 7. But, in the more recent Common Worship, the primary festival of the name of Jesus is on January 1, taking the place of the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Many Eastern Churches as well as Lutheran Churches also celebrate the Festival of the Holy Name of Jesus on January 1.
While it is all very well to celebrate a feast for the Holy Name of Jesus, the effect of replacing the Feast of the Circumcision is to replace the commemoration of an act that demonstrates Jesus' physical humanity with something that is much more easily spiritualized. (Although I have also long suspected that the impetus for the change came from clergy who were tired of having to explain to children what "circumcision" means.)
The tendency is strong in contemporary theology to shift our focus from the reality of God in the flesh to a "Cosmic Christ" or a spiritualized Jesus who can be shaped to fit whatever we want him to be. (Just Google the term "Cosmic Christ," and you'll see the sort of thing I mean.) [See also 1 John 4:1-3.]
The Physical Reality of the Resurrection
The tendency is seen much more clearly when we come to the events of Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension. The trend in contemporary theology has been to regard Jesus' Resurrection only a spiritual and not a bodily one. This necessarily has ramifications for what we believe about the Ascension.
If Jesus' Resurrection is merely a spiritual symbol that he goes on living forever, then the Ascension of his body into heaven has no historical reality. In that view, how much more appropriate is it, then, to leave the Paschal Candle lit until Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit comes to be the presence of Christ continuing to live in us?
Don't get me wrong: I know of good, otherwise orthodox parishes that wait until Pentecost Sunday to extinguish the Paschal Candle. But think about the symbolism for a minute: How does extinguishing the Candle symbolize the coming of the Holy Spirit? One doesn’t have to be a scholar in liturgics to know it better symbolizes the departure of our Lord.
The flame of the Paschal candle symbolizes the resurrected Christ as light of the world. His physical presence in the midst of his people demonstrates his victory over death and the grave. That physical presence—that resurrected body of Jesus—ascends to heaven 40 days later. We miss the physical reality of the Resurrection if we take too lightly the testimony of the Scriptures and the Creeds that "he ascended into heaven."
The Aloneness of the Disciples
Another things we can miss if we overlook the reality of Jesus' bodily Ascension is that the disciples were left alone.
In John 21, when Jesus appears to the disciples, what were they doing? They were fishing. But it wasn't fishing for recreation or to catch a few fish for a meal. They had been out all night in a boat with a net. This is commercial fishing. In Jesus' absence, the disciples had returned to their old occupations.
So in the account from Luke's Gospel, when Jesus prepares to ascend to heaven, he gives them some final instructions:
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:45-49).So when the Book of Acts begins, Luke picks up where he left off at the close of his Gospel, with the events of Jesus' Ascension:
He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:3-5).He continued,
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:8-11).Jesus tells them to stay in the city and not to depart from Jerusalem. Why is he so explicit about this? He is telling them not to go back to their old occupations (as they surely would have if they had returned to Galilee) but to await the power that would make them into apostles—that would make them into the Church. There was no need for fishermen in Jerusalem—no bodies of water, no boats, no nets, no fish. Staying in Jerusalem together meant looking forward to their new occupation, not returning to their old one. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was going to make them into what he had said when he first called them: "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:17).
But they had to wait; they had to trust; they had to obey. And, in the meantime, they were alone.
It is important for us not to miss the fact that Jesus left the disciples alone. He had not forsaken them, but he had gone away for a season. There are times when, though Jesus has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us, we do not experience him as closely as at other times. In those times, we must do what the disciples did:
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:12-14).When times of aloneness come to us, we must be obedient; we must remain together, wait on the Lord, and pray.
The time between Jesus' Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit to indwell believers and form the Church was ten days. The time when Jesus left the disciples and their need to remain obedient and await the fulfillment of Jesus' promise is important to remember. We signify his absence as he ascends to heaven by extinguishing the Paschal Candle. And, though the light be temporarily gone from us, we faithfully wait.