Ascension Day

Collect for Ascension Day:7 “Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.”

In the United States, Ascension Day is on the 40th day of the Easter season. It commemorates Jesus Christ's ascension into heaven. Ascension Day is always on a Thursday; the day is also named Holy Thursday. Frequently, congregates don’t attend church on Thursday. They commemorate Ascension Day on the nearest Sunday. Observance of an Ascension Day feast started early. Several sources dated Ascension Day back to year 68 AD; however, no documentary evidence was found before the fifth century. Saint Augustine claimed Ascension Day had apostolic origins.

On the 40th day after his resurrection, Jesus took his disciples to a location on the Mount of Olives, very likely on the east, or Bethany, side. Acts chapter 1 (8-11) has the best description of what happened: The disciples questioned Jesus if he planned to restore the kingdom of Israel. Some, if not most, still believed that Jesus’ kingdom would be an earthly one in the manner of Kings David and Solomon. Ever patient, Jesus replied that it wasn’t for them to know the times that God fixed. He went on to explain a much greater truth – the Holy Spirit is going to come on them and they are going to receive power! They are going to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth.

After telling the disciples the good news about the Holy Spirit coming on them, Jesus was lifted, and a cloud took him out of the disciples site. The Latin words for “lifted up” in this passage is ascensio. This word signifies that Jesus was raised up by his own powers, not the power of God, the Father. From the Latin word ascensio, we get the name Ascension Day. Mark (16:19 ESV) wrote that Jesus was taken up into heaven. Mark implied that heaven is above the earth, i.e., “lifted up.” My colleague, a renowned theologian, believes that heaven is a different, but parallel, dimension as earth. Whether or not heaven is located above the earth shouldn’t be a stumbling block for Christians as they ponder Ascension Day.

Several customs, symbols, or rituals are connected to Ascension Day. Most are easy to understand such as the blessing of a candle and the extinguishing of the Easter candle, a triumphal procession with banner and torches outside the church to commemorate Jesus’s entry into heaven. In some churches, the scene of Jesus’ ascension is reproduced by elevating a figure or statue of Jesus through an opening in the church roof. In others, a figure of Jesus is made to ascend and the devil to descend.

Reflection: Does it matter to you if heaven is up, down, or horizontal, i.e., in a parallel dimension?