Ascension Day is perhaps the most under-celebrated important holiday in the calendar. Representing one of the lines of the Creeds (“he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”), this holiday marks a significant turning point in the Gospel story and sets the stage for how the Christian’s relationship with God is defined. We often think of it as an awkward point between the Resurrection of Jesus (Easter) and the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), but even in itself the Ascension is a major event. What I’m setting out to do in this post is draw from the various Scriptural and traditional resources of the Church’s liturgy to explore some of the basic teachings and implications of this great and underappreciated day in the year.
The Event of the Ascension
Christ’s ascension is described in three books: Mark, Luke, and Acts.
In Mark’s Gospel account, the Ascension is in the now-controversial end of chapter 16 (which many scholars argue is not original to Mark). There, Jesus rebukes the apostles for their lack of faith when they didn’t believe the news of His resurrection at first; he commanded them to go into the world and preach the Gospel, promising that all who believe and are baptized will be saved; he listed several “signs” of Gospel victory including the exorcism of demons, the multiplication of languages among God’s people, and other miraculous victories over the normal forces of nature. The casting out of demons, in particular, was prominent in medieval Christian piety at this time of year, as the congregation would have just had a procession around the borders of their village or town, blessing the crops for the new growing season, and casting out the forces of evil that would oppose them. The Gospel account then ends, saying “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.”
painting by John S. Copley, in 1775
In Luke and Acts, a similar outline can be found. Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be witnesses of His death and resurrection to Judah and Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. He is taken up bodily into heaven, and a pair of angels tells them that He will return in the same way. There is also a promise given concerning the gift of the power of the Holy Spirit, which would follow soon after, and for which they were to wait.
The Passing of the Torch
One major feature of this event is the transfer of authority, leadership, and mission from the person of Jesus to the people of Jesus. The Apostles had “graduated” from disciples (learners) to apostles (people who are sent). A similar story is found in 2 Kings 2, which is the only other story in the Bible about someone ascending into heaven. The Prophet Elijah, after a long and tumultuous ministry, is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, and his disciple Elisha literally takes up the mantle and carries on Elijah’s ministry.
In Church tradition there is a special candle called the Paschal Candle which is lit during the Easter Vigil, and remains burning throughout the season of Easter. It was, therefore, a very large candle in order to keep going all that time. In some of the more elaborate churches back in the day, they would connect this candle to a sort of pulley system so that when the Gospel is read during Mass on Ascension Day, the candle would be lifted from its place near the altar up into the arched ceiling among the rafters. That candle represents the presence of the resurrected Christ, and its ascension was a visual display reinforcing the ascension of Christ.
a paschal candle from 2008
What Jesus does next
Other readings that come up in the various worship services on Ascension Day can include Daniel 7 and Hebrews 4.
In Daniel 7:9-15, we read the vision of the Ancient of Days taking his throne in heaven, and the many peoples of the world gathering to worship Him. The Beast (the devil) is defeated, the judgment book is opened, and the days of the rest of the evil ones in the world are now numbered. This is a cosmic behind-the-scenes look at the Ascension of Jesus. For, as Mark’s Gospel observes, Jesus ascended “and sat down at the right hand of God.” This isn’t a seat of rest, it’s a seat of enthronement; the King has arrived in his throne room to rule over all. This is why proclaim Christ as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out,” Jesus said, shortly before his arrest and crucifixion (John 12:31).
But Jesus is also our great High Priest, and that is the picture given at the end of Hebrews 4. Verses 14-16 declare “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The meaning of Jesus as our high priest is explored throughout the following several chapters of the book of Hebrews, and received particular attention during Holy Week leading up to Easter, but here the theme is briefly revisited as a reminder of Christ’s ongoing priestly work at “the throne of grace.” He is not just the judging King, he is also the merciful Priest.
Jesus depicted both as a bishop/priest and as a king
What we do next
Our part in all this begins to appear in the same quotes from Hebrews 4 – “Let us then with confidence draw near.” In recent times, other readings have been drawn in to tease this out more carefully. Ephesians 1 and 4 both the Ascension of Christ towards earthly applications for us.
In Ephesians 1:15-23, St. Paul prays that we would receive the spirit of wisdom to know the inheritance we have in Christ, particularly in light of his being seated at the right hand of God, where all things are put under his feet. As the head of the Church, he fills all and is in all, meaning that in his ascension to heaven he actually became omnipresent, as God is normally understood to be. Although Jesus still exists as a human, with a body, he is now everywhere present, particularly through the Church, his mystical body. This Paul presents to us as a comforting assurance of God’s grace, for if we are part of his Church then we are called to a rich and glorious hope.
Additionally, a traditional prayer for Ascension Day (the Collect of the Day), makes the link between Christ’s ascension and our union with him there even more explicit:
Grant, we beseech you, Almighty God, that as we do believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell…
This is taken a step further in chapter 4, wherein Paul speaks of the Body of Christ not just as a source of hope, but of salvation and gifts. Verses 7 and 8 say “Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”” The “host of captives” are the people he freed from the power of sin, death, and the Devil. This includes both the dead, among whom Christ descended in his own death, as well as the living, to whom he gives new life through regeneration – the second (spiritual) birth through Baptism. And on top of that he gives us gifts! To some degree this is a preview of the Pentecost, which follows ten days after Ascension Day. Though the gifts particularly mentioned in Ephesians 4 are actually ministers: Apostles (or bishops and other leaders), Prophets (or preachers), Evangelists (or missionaries), and Pastor-Teachers (or other clergy, ministers, or mentors).
In the Ascension of Christ, we see his formal enthronement in heaven, and according to ancient custom, the newly-installed King distributes gifts to his people. It’s a glorious event, and a cause for great celebration!
Celebrating in Song
There are a few, but really excellent, Ascension Day hymns out there; the two that come to mind most immediately are See the Conqueror mounts in triumph and Hail the day that sees him rise. But there are also a number of Psalms that are associated with this holiday.
Psalm 8 speaks of mankind as being made “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet…” This is very similar imagery to some of the Ascension material already quoted, and is taken up in Hebrews 2:6-8 as applicable to Jesus himself.
Psalms 21 and 24 and 47 are songs of praise to the king, which in the context of Ascension Day make for appropriate expressions of fealty and worship toward God the Son, our King, Jesus. The first focuses on the king already on his throne, the second speaks of his enthronement, and the third is explicitly about God being the enthroned king.
Psalm 108 is a song of victory, especially characterized by its 5th and 6th verses: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! That your beloved ones may be delivered, give salvation by your right hand and answer me!” It described the conquests and reign of God our King using the names of lands that were adjacent to ancient Israel, perhaps rendering the psalm difficult for modern readers to wade through, but the picture of victory and rule is clear throughout.
The Road to Pentecost
Parts of Psalm 68 also show up in bits of the liturgy for Ascension Day, as well as the Sunday after the Ascension and on the day of Pentecost. This psalm, thus, provides a sort of long-term link that helps connect the brief season of Ascensiontide to the next great feast, Pentecost. Verse 18 was already quoted in Ephesians 4:8, “You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the Lord God may dwell there.” This verse alone, it seems, provides the big picture explanation of how the Ascension of the victorious king leads to the divine gift-distribution of Pentecost.
an 11th century depiction of the divine gift of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost
The Psalm begins with what can be taken as a picture of the Ascension: “God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered” and verse 19 implies our heavenly unity with the ascended Christ: “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation.” And although the image of God being “above us in heaven” is one that has been around for thousands of years, the end of this Psalm is especially illuminated by the Ascension of Christ:
O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God;
sing praises to the Lord, Selah
to him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel,
and whose power is in the skies.
Awesome is God from his sanctuary;
the God of Israel—he is the one who gives power and strength to his people.
Blessed be God!
Finally, verses 7-14 have a particular focus on the blessings from God, his people “diving the spoil,” abundant rain being spread across the parched dry land, our heavenly inheritance being restored, and so forth. All these are pictures of the gift of the Holy Spirit whom Christ sends to his people on the day of Pentecost. Thus the Day of Ascension is not just a holiday to end the Easter season, but also the beginning of a gleeful (and prayerful) ten-day anticipation of yet another party!
As is prayed on the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost,
O God the King of glory, who has exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto your Kingdom in heaven: We beseech you, do not leave us comfortless; but send to us your Holy Spirit to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place to where our Savior Christ is gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.