Today is a national holiday in Switzerland.
An alert reader – and I seem to have many of them – would point out that there are actually no national holidays in Switzerland since each of the fiercely-independent 26 cantons must decide on its own holidays, but in fact all 26 agree to observe this day.
Which must mean that today is a very important day.
The church bells began ringing all over Zurich at 4:00 yesterday afternoon, and the stores closed soon after in preparation for the holiday. I dutifully went to German class last night, but most of my classmates had started the holiday early. (I had lots of individual attention, which I have always needed in school.)
As I walked the dog this morning, I realized that the neighborhood was unusually quiet. I might have written “not a creature was stirring,” but that line is already taken and associated with another holiday.
For those readers who need some help, today is Ascension Day, exactly 40 days after the Resurrection of Christ. (Easter Monday is also a national holiday in Switzerland, this very religious land in which I now live.)
Frankly, and you may be surprised to learn this from me, Ascension Day is hardly the biggest day on the Christian calendar. I’ve never tried to rank Christian holy days, but I’m pretty sure Ascension Day doesn’t rank very high for very many people.
Personally I wouldn’t put it in the Top 5.
As a child I remember going to church one time with my dad for an evening service on Ascension Day, and even then I remember thinking it was a strange thing to do. I don’t remember anymore what the sermon was about, which a lot of children will also undoubtedly say about the times they went to church when I was preaching.
Having a holiday associated with a relatively insignificant event in Jesus’ life – only Luke and Acts mention it – prompted me to do some reading this morning, and among other things I discovered a lengthy article in the journal on Reformed theology to which I’ve contributed for more than 20 years. I even plan to preach about the ascension on Sunday.
Even at that I’m at a loss to explain today.
Deep in the Swiss DNA there seems to be a religious longing that finds its expression not in church attendance, but in certain cultural reminders – like church bells and holidays. Given the chance to let go of those reminders, they (almost) always vote to retain them.
After only four months in the country I don’t claim to understand any of this, but will keep trying. And of course I’ll keep you posted.
(Photo: Religious observances tend to be more visible – and colorful – in the small villages. I saw some unusual costumes in Zurich yesterday but was told they had more to do with the end of exams than with a religious holiday.)