Ascension Day Definition and Summary
The Solemnity of the Ascension commemorates when Jesus returned to heaven forty days after His resurrection. Thus Ascension Day falls 40 days after Easter, on the Sixth Thursday of Easter. In some parts of the world, the feast is transferred to the Sunday after the traditional date.
Prayers: Ascension Prayers
Basic Facts About the Ascension Feast
: 40 days after Easter Day, on the Sixth Thursday of Easter
: One day; Sometimes observed on the Seventh Sunday of Easter; Has an octave
: Jesus' ascension into heaven
: Analepsis, Episozomene
Forty days after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Acts of the Apostles records that Jesus ascended into heaven. The Ascension is an important Christian holiday, which attests to the reality of Jesus Christ returning to heaven, with the promise of returning again in the future. The Ascension is the final component of the paschal mystery, which consists also of Jesus' crucifixion (and related components like His suffering and death) and resurrection.
Along with the resurrection, the ascension functioned as a proof of Jesus' claim that He was the Messiah. The ascension is also the event whereby humanity was taken into heaven. Finally, the ascension was also the "final blow" against Satan's power, and thus the lion (Jesus) conquering the dragon (Satan) is a symbol of the ascension. Early Christian art and iconography portrayed the ascension frequently, showing its importance to the early Church.
The Catholic Catechism summarizes three important theological aspects (with which most Christian churches agree) of the Ascension concisely:
Christ's Ascension marks the definitive entrance of Jesus' humanity into God's heavenly domain, whence he will come again (cf. Acts 1:11); this humanity in the meantime hides him from the eyes of men (cf. Col 3:3). Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, precedes us into the Father's glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his Body, may live in the hope of one day being with him for ever. Jesus Christ, having entered the sanctuary of heaven once and for all, intercedes constantly for us as the mediator who assures us of the permanent outpouring of the Holy Spirit (665-667).
Evidence from John Chrysostom, Egeria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Church historian Socrates suggest that Ascension Day was likely first celebrated in the fourth century AD. However, Augustine claimed the festival was apostolic. Often the feast was celebrated with a procession, symbolizing Christ's journey to the Mount of Olives. Until rather recently, the Paschal Candle (which was lit at the Easter Vigil) was extinguished on Ascension Day. The Ascension is often celebrated as an octave, the proper preface and Ascension collect being used until the Saturday before Pentecost.
In some Catholic dioceses, the Ascension is celebrated on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, which is the Sunday following the traditional date. Likely, this is done to make it easier for the faithful to fulfill their obligation to attend Mass on this day, but it removes the connection with the biblical chronology.
Worship and Prayer resources
Traditions, Symbols, and Typology
Traditions Blessing of fruits and beans, procession with torches and banners, extinguishing the Paschal Candle
Symbols Ascending Christ (also with descending Devil), birds flying homeward, open gates, lion conquering a dragon, Elijah's fiery chariot, broken chain
Frequently Asked Questions
1. This question is not about the Ascension holiday per se, but related to the truth of the historical ascension. However, since belief in the ascension is directly tied to celebrating its feast, it should be addressed. Some theologians and philosophers have claimed that modern people cannot believe in Jesus' ascension, because the story assumes the outdated science of a "three-tiered universe."
It is true that many Biblical authors likely perceived the universe as three-tiered, in which heaven is spatially "up" above a sky dome (and hell is below the earth). Luke may or may not have had this cosmology in mind when writing about the ascension. Even if he did, this does not discount the truth of the ascension. What ultimately happened at the Mount of Olives that day was that Jesus returned to the Father, to a reality that is outside of space and time as we know it. Assuming this return was miraculous, it likely wasn't a spatial/material act at all. It was an event above human perception and explanation. However, the witnesses had to render the event in terms they (and we) could understand, using the tools, knowledge, and science of the day (as we would do as well; we can hardly be expected to explain events in terms and frameworks beyond those of our day!). As such, the miraculous event was recorded as a spatial ascension, because we humans live within space-time, and conceive of reality spatially and temporally.
These ideas owe a debt to C.S. Lewis. In a 1942 sermon, Lewis described the ascension as:
...a being still in some mode, though not our mode, corporeal, withdrew at His own will from the Nature presented by our three dimensions and five senses, not necessarily into the non-sensuous and undimensional, but into, or through, a world or worlds of super-sense and super space. And He might choose to do it gradually. Who on earth knows what the spectators might see? If they say they saw a momentary movement along the vertical plane - then an indistinct mass - then nothing - who is to pronounce this improbable?" (God in the Dock, p. 35; also see "Horrid Red Things," in Ibid. pp. 68-71)
2. In John 20:17, Jesus says He must ascend to the Father. The text that follows implies that Jesus almost immediately "ascends" only to return later in the day. This ascension is for the purpose of Jesus' post-resurrection glorification. As to whether Jesus went "up" here, see the above question and answer. This ascension is historically and theologically distinct from Jesus' final ascension in Acts. The ascension mentioned in Acts and celebrated during the Feast of the Ascension is Jesus' final appearance on Earth. Thus, after ascending He becomes physically absent from the Church until the final parousia, i.e. his return to judge the living and the dead. Of course Jesus is still present to us, particularly in the Eucharistic bread and wine (which are His body and blood). In conclusion, I see no reason the two ascensions must be viewed as conflicting accounts, but rather are two separate events that serve two very distinct, but important, theological purposes.
This page written by David Bennett.