THURSDAY, MAY 17: The Piazza San Marco clock tower of Venice will reveal magi and an angel today, while the city’s mayor throws a ring into the sea to symbolize marriage. It’s the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, one of the great solemnities of the Christian Church that is wrapped in centuries-old customs.
This holiday, celebrating Jesus’ ascension into the heavens, has been marked since the beginning of the 5th century, making it one of the Church’s most venerable holidays. (Wikipedia has more.) This holy day falls on a Thursday each year, precisely 40 days after Easter; however, many communities worldwide have moved this feast to the following Sunday, to promote a more widespread observance of the ecumenical feast. Of course, this decision is left to the bishops of each ecclesiastical province.
Though historians have not found evidence from observances prior to the 5th century, St. Augustine and many others label it as an “Apostolic feast,” dating back to the fledgling years of the Church. The Ascension itself is accounted in the Acts of the Apostles, described as Jesus’ resurrected body being taken up into Heaven in the presence of 11 of his apostles; an angel tells the disciples that Jesus’ second coming will occur in a similar manner. (The BBC provides details.)The gospels of Mark and Luke concisely describe the event, and between these three references, tradition holds that the Ascension took place “in the vicinity of Bethany” on Mount Olivet. Today, Muslims and Christians can visit a combination church/mosque on the Mount of Ascension; a stone inside the building is said to contain the footprints of Jesus.
Given this feast’s rank in the Church, Christians have developed a range of customs; among the most universal is the extinguishing of the Paschal Candle, which was lit on Easter Sunday. In some areas, Christians partake of a bird to symbolize Christ’s “flying away” to Heaven; in others, a banner is paraded around the church that bears the a lion and dragon, symbolizing Christ’s victory over evil. (FishEaters describes more customs.) Some congregations even raise the figure of Christ through an opening in the church roof! Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a number of still-popular pieces devoted to this feast, in addition to the Ascension Oratorio.
Eastern Christians mark the Feast of the Ascension one week from today this year, on May 24.