Summary: a Christian feast celebrating the ascension of the Resurrected Christ into heaven
2018 Date: 10th May (Western Christianity), 17th May (Eastern Christianity)
Celebrated by: Christians
Linked Holidays: Easter, Pentecost (Christianity)
Background and Theological Significance
The Feast of the Ascension, or Ascension Day, is the celebration in the Christian liturgical year of the bodily ascension of the Risen Jesus Christ into heaven. This takes place forty days after Easter Sunday, and ten days before Pentecost, and is traditionally observed on a Thursday. It is universally celebrated across Western and Eastern branches of Christianity.
According to the New Testament, Jesus spent forty days preaching amongst his disciples following his Resurrection. The writer of the Gospel of Luke states that Jesus led his followers to the village of Bethany and blessed them, before being carried up into heaven. The Book of Acts (which likely shares the same author as Luke) elaborates on this, stating that he was lifted up and hidden by a cloud, after which two men in white robes appear and tell the disciples that Jesus has been taken into heaven. The disciples then leave and set out on their mission to spread the message of Christ.
Ascension Day is connected in Christian thought with the exaltation of Jesus to glory, as reflected in the line of the Apostles’ Creed, ‘he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty’. It is also seen as the culmination of the Incarnation following Christ’s death and resurrection, as well as the time when Christ handed over the mission to spread the Good News to the disciples. It is thus a time of celebration, and challenge for Christians who are called to follow.
The Feast of the Ascension seems to have been celebrated since the time of the early Church. The great St Augustine of Hippo stated in the early fifth-century CE that the festival was of apostolic origin and had been universally celebrated by the Church since well before his time. In the Western Church the term for the Feast comes from the Latin ‘ascensio’, whereas in the Eastern Church it is usually known by the Greek ‘analepsis’, which means ‘taking up’. Due to being based on the date for Easter, Ascension Day is usually celebrated a week later in the Eastern Church, which calculates its liturgical year on the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar.
Accounts of heavenly ascents were reasonably common during the time of Jesus, ranging from prominent Jewish prophets such as Elijah to legendary Greek heroes such as Heracles. They signified the deification or divine approval of important spiritual figures. Bodily ascensions reflect the belief in a three-tiered universe with the heavens above separated from the Earth by a firmament, and with the underworld situated below. As the three-tiered universe is largely rejected nowadays, modern theologians have tended to view the story of Christ’s physical ascension as an expression of an outdated cosmology. Scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann have attempted to de-mythologise both the ethereal concept of heaven and Christ’s ascension, focusing on the Risen Christ’s entry into God’s eternal presence as an emblem of the ascent of humanity to the divine.
Ascension Day is celebrated in the Western Church predominantly by Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Although traditionally held on the Thursday forty days after Easter Sunday, many churches in fact move their observance to the following Sunday. Ascension Day is often celebrated by a procession of worshipers bearing torches or candles, followed by the offering of the Eucharist. In some churches, a figure of Christ is lifted up above the altar and through the church roof to symbolise the ascension. The old tradition of ‘beating the bounds’ (walking around the boundaries) of a parish on Ascension Day is still observed in some parts of England.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Ascension is observed as one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical year. It signifies the end of Eastertide (which in the West continues until Pentecost), and the readings and chants during the Divine Liturgy reflect this.
The Ascension of Jesus Christ has been a popular subject for artists, including a striking painting by Rembrandt completed in 1636. It has also been an inspiration in both music and literature, as can be seen in the Ascension Oratorio composed by Bach, and the poem Holy Thursday penned by William Blake. The Ascension of Christ remains a powerful image within the Christian faith, and whatever reservations there may be about its literal truth, it serves as an emblem of the ascension of humanity into divinity.
‘The Ascension” by Rembrandt (1606-1669) is in the Public Domain