Ascension Day is a religious holiday (holy day). Although it gets lost between Easter Sunday and Pentecost, Ascension Day was celebrated as early as 68 AD. The first written evidence of an Ascension Day feastoccurred in 385 AD. On the church calendar, Ascension Day is part of the 50-day Easter season.
Ascension Day is always the 40thday after Resurrection Sunday (Easter), the day that Christians celebrate Jesus rising from the dead. Because Easter Sunday changes from year-to-year, so does Ascension Day; nonetheless, Ascension Day is always on a Thursday. Some celebrants name Ascension Day as Holy Thursday. In 2019 Ascension Day is on May 30.
Christian tradition is that in the 40 days following Jesus’s resurrection, he met with his disciples, both men and women. He cooked them breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, ate with them, and taught them.
Forty days after Resurrection Sunday, Jesus let his disciples to the Mount of Olives. There, Jesus told the disciples that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.9 English Standard Bible). Jesus’s words about the Holy Spirit came true at Pentecost, 10 days in the future from his ascension. In the two millennia since Jesus spoke these words, Christian missionaries took his words throughout the earth.
After Jesus said these words to his disciples, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of the disciple’s sight. While the disciples watched, two men (probably angels) appeared beside them. They asked, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1.11 English Standard Bible). These angelic words are the inspiration for descriptions of how Jesus will return to earth at the second coming.
Often symbols of Ascension Day contain some type of movement, perhaps reflecting Jesus’s movement from earth to heaven. Symbols include a depiction of the ascending Jesus, flying birds, Elijah’s fiery chariot, a lion conquering a dragon, open gates, and a broken chain. Each signifies access to heaven.
Catholic Christians have identified Ascension Day as a “holy day of obligation” with the expectation that Catholics attend church that day. They believe that Ascension Day signifies Jesus leading the way into heaven. Left to their own power, individuals don’t have access to heaven. After ascending into heaven, Jesus is on God’s right hand, a place of majesty and power. There, Jesus makes intercession for Christian’s lives.
Often, Protestant churches don’t hold Ascension Day services on Thursday. Rather, they celebrate Jesus’s ascension as part of the normal Sunday services, naming it Ascension Sunday.
In the United States Ascension Day/Sunday can be celebrated in a variety of ways:
- In a community, churches join to celebrate a combined Day of Prayer and Ascension Day service. These services include a time for personal reflection.
- Churches organize a “church crawl,” where congregates travel from one church to another and experience different prayer events.
- Churches feature combined cathedral choirs that offer a special solemn Eucharist written especially for Ascension Day.
- Some churches hold a special ceremony where the Paschal candle is extinguished and removed after reading of the gospel on Ascension Day.
Throughout the globe, many Christian nations identify Ascension Day as a national holiday; however, on Ascension in the United States of Americagovernment offices, banks, stores, etc., are open.
Ascension Day traditions which are distinctive are:
- Germany celebrates Father’s Day(Vatertag) on the same date as Ascension Day.
- In Colombia, South America, Ascension Day (as with other holidays) is celebrated on the Monday after the actual date.
- In France Ascension Day is a public holiday. Shops, banks, post offices, and schools are closed. The traditional food on Ascension Day is poultry, young lamb, and seasonal fair, i.e., asparagus, avocado and romaine salad, new-potato salad, mushroom soups, apricots, figs and citrus. Not uncommonly, people plan a picnic.