Feast of the Ascension: Christians look to Mount of Olives 40 days after Easter

Jesus glowing, in white, standing on grass with disciples on ground bowing and gesturing

An artist’s image of Waiting for the Word, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, MAY 14: As Pentecost approaches, the Christian Church observes a pivotal feast central to the faith since its earliest days: the Feast of the Ascension, known also as Ascension Day. On this date—or, as some Roman Catholic churches have obtained Vatican permission to hold services on the Sunday following—Christians commemorate the bodily ascension of Jesus into Heaven. Each year, the Feast of the Ascension takes place on the 40th day after Easter. Though no documents give testament to the feast’s existence prior to the 5th century, St. Augustine referred to it as a universal observance of Apostolic origin.

MOUNT OF OLIVES: THE STORY OF THE ASCENSION

On the 40th day after Jesus’s Resurrection, it’s believed that he gathered with his disciples on the Mount of Olives and blessed them there. Jesus asked them to wait for the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, to be witnesses and to “make disciples of all nations.” (Find readings for the feast and more from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.) Jesus then ascended into Heaven, when, according to the story as recounted in Acts: Jesus was lifted up in a cloud.

The feast’s Latin term, ascensio, indicates the belief that Christ was raised up by his own powers. Traditionally, beans and fruits were blessed on this feast day, and the Paschal candle’s flame is quenched. (Wikipedia has details.) In some churches, the Christ figure was lifted through an opening in the roof on the Feast of the Ascension.

Activities: It is customary to eat a type of bird on this day, to represent Christ’s “flight” to Heaven. As Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives, it is also common—in hilly or mountainous areas—to picnic on a hilltop. (Find more ideas from FishEaters.)

Note: In the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, the Feast of the Ascension takes place on May 21, in accordance with 40 days after Pascha (Easter).

FEAST OF THE ASCENSION: Christians rejoice in Christ’s rising

Painting of Christ ascended above a crowd

Photo released via Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, MAY 9 & SUNDAY, MAY 12: Head to the hills today—if you’re a Christian, that is—because today is the Feast of the Ascension, celebrating Christ’s raising up into Heaven. In many areas, it’s common to climb nearby hills or mountains to commemorate Jesus ascending from what is traditionally described as the Mount of Olives. The feast is the Ascension (or Ascensio in Latin) to indicate to Christians Christ was raised up by His own powers.

Although the feast officially falls on May 9—and June 13, in the Eastern Church—most countries have received permission from the Vatican to move the feast’s observance to Sunday. (Wikipedia has details.) Australia, Ireland, Canada, England and most of the United States are just a few of the countries that will commemorate the Feast of the Ascension on Sunday, although a few U.S. cities—including Boston, New York and Philadelphia—retain the Thursday observance.

The Feast of the Ascension remains, quite possibly, one of the oldest commemorations of the Church. Although there is no documentary evidence of the feast prior to the 5th century, St. Augustine mentions it to be of Apostolic origin, and experts believe it may have instead been observed in combination with Easter or Pentecost.

Regardless, various customs have arisen through the centuries for this holiday, ranging from torch processions outside of churches to the elevation of a Christ figure through an opening in the church roof. In England, parishioners would often parade a banner with a lion at the front and a dragon at the back, symbolizing Christ’s triumph over the devil. Johann Sebastian Bach composed multiple cantatas for today’s services. (Learn more customs from FishEaters.)

POPE FRANCIS ON THE ASCENSION

Pope Francis recently preached about the Feast of the Ascension, in a declaration of “The courage to do great things, the humility to appreciate the little things.” Though observing the Feast of St. Mark at the time, Pope Francis spoke of the passage in the Gospel of Mark that describes the Ascension of Jesus. The homily focused on Jesus, prior to the Ascension, sending the apostles forth to preach the Gospel “to the end of the world.” (Read more from Radio Vatican.) Pope Francis urged today’s Christians, in a likewise manner, should continue this vocation.