Feast of the Ascension

The Feast of the Ascension

The last phase of the 50-day season of Easter is marked by the feasts of the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost Sunday. Older readers will remember when the Ascension was celebrated 40 days after Easter Sunday, on a Thursday. About 20 years ago in Australia and elsewhere the feast was moved to the seventh Sunday of Easter.
The practice of commemorating the Ascension of the Lord exactly 40 days after the resurrection was based on a literal interpretation of Luke’s account of events in Acts chapter one. It is important to understand that the numeral is not intended to be taken literally here. The number 40 held significance for the early Christians: the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert after his baptism, the risen Christ instructs his disciples for 40 days after the resurrection.
In fact, the Lord’s ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit were originally celebrated together on the 50th day after the resurrection, the feast of Pentecost. It was not until the end of the fourth century that the Ascension became a separate feast day.
Leo the Great, preaching about the importance of this feast, gives an insight into its meaning:
‘The Lord’s resurrection filled us with joy on Easter Day; so too his ascension into heaven is the cause of our gladness now, as we commemorate and solemnise the day on which our lowly nature was raised up in Christ above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the height of all the heavenly powers, to the throne of God the Father… Though everything that seemed to move us to due reverence is removed from our sight, our faith remains constant, our hope firm and our charity warm’. (Office of Readings, Easter Week 6, Friday).
The Preface of the Ascension also makes clear the purpose of the feast:
“Christ the mediator between God and the human race,
judge of the world and Lord of all, has passed beyond our sight,
not to abandon us but to be our hope.Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church;
where he has gone, we hope to follow.”
What we celebrate is not just a past event or the hope of our own glorious future destiny but the life we share now with the risen Lord.
The first reading for the feast is from Luke’s prologue to the book of Acts. Jesus travelled to Jerusalem to his passion and death; now the disciples will take the Good News of his resurrection out to the world, beginning in Jerusalem and reaching to the ends of the earth.
Just as the 40 days in the Acts account of the Ascension is not intended to be taken literally, the terms ascending and descending used by Paul in the reading from Ephesians today are metaphors for spiritual realities and do not refer to physical movements in certain directions.
The account of the ascension that we hear this year from Mark occupies not even a full sentence in the gospel reading. The rest of the passage is about Jesus’ final commissioning of the disciples to go out into the whole world and proclaim the Good News.


Elizabeth Harrington