The Ascension of the Lord is a great celebration of the Church. It commemorates the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven. According to St. Luke it occurred 40 days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3). It is a feast of great antiquity with liturgies and art of the 4th century already addressing it as a norm of the Church. In the Eastern Church this feast is known in Greek as Analepsis, the “taking up,” and also as the Episozomene, the “salvation from on high,” indicating that by ascending into his glory Christ completed the work of our redemption.
Especially in Western Europe, the Feast of the Ascension, falling on Thursday, traditionally has been a public holiday, allowing the faithful to participate in the holy day of obligation. In modern times, there are no mid-week public holidays in most places, and so, celebration of the feast diminished. There are many Christian traditions that do not celebrate the Ascension. In the early 1990s the Vatican gave permission for the local bishop to move the observance of the Feast of the Ascension from the traditional Thursday to the following Sunday, the Sunday before Pentecost. The permission to move was given so that the faithful might maintain contact with the importance of the feast.
Christian faith traditionally has insisted on confession of the Ascension because it is intractably connected to a whole tapestry of Christian beliefs about Jesus’s work, God’s kingdom, and everlasting hope. St. Luke considered the ascension so vital that he recorded it twice, first in Luke 24:49-53 and again in Acts 1:9-11. For St. Luke, the Ascension is the hinge of salvation history: As Jesus’ ministry on earth has ended, the ministry of the Church begins.
The mention of Jesus’ ascension and enthronement beside the Father finds its place in the Nicene Creed because it signifies above all else that God the Father has put a human being in charge of the universe. As Bruce Metzger put it: “Ascension Day proclaims that there is no sphere, however secular, in which Christ has no rights – and no sphere in which his followers are absolved from obedience to him. Instead of it being a fairy tale from the pre-space age, Christ’s ascension is the guarantee that he has triumphed over the principalities and powers, so that at his name ‘every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Phil. 2:10-11).”
Let me offer just a few reasons for the importance of celebrating the Ascension:
- Jesus’ promise is fulfilled: He ascended to heaven, making room to send the Holy Spirit to his followers as he had promised.
- Having ascended to the right hand of the Father, the faithful now share in the reign of Christ by virtue of their union with Christ.
- Just as Jesus was the mediator to the Father on our behalf, Jesus’ work of mediation continues in heavenly session.
Perhaps the words of 5th century Bishop Maximus of Turin point out the greatest importance of the feast and our celebration. “The mystery of the Lord’s Ascension, dear brothers, has ordained today’s festival. Let us rejoice that the Only-begotten of God came to earth for the redemption of all and let us be glad that He entered heaven for our immortality … The earth rejoices when it sees its Redeemer reigning in the heavens; heaven is glad because it has not lost its God which it had and has received the manhood which it had not.” For the first time, humanity has entered Heaven. And that is reason for celebration.