Our church’s worship and music committee had a discussion about whether to have an Ascension Eucharist on Ascension Thursday evening or Wednesday evening ahead of the regularly scheduled choir rehearsal or to transfer it to the following Sunday. And if we transfer it to the following Sunday should the Ascension propers replace those for the Seventh Sunday of Easter or should the ascension just be noted in hymns and prayers? Do you have a thought about the best time for a liturgical observance of the Ascension? These are practical concerns about attendance and scheduling. But overriding them is the question: how important is it to observe the Ascension of our Lord?
Let me begin with the final question because it may have some bearing on the “practical” decision, which I assume was made some time ago.
In the Gospels Jesus’ ascension to the Father is connected with his resurrection from the dead. In the Gospel of John when Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ in the garden, Jesus tells her not to hold on to him, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” She is given a commission to “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and to your God.” (John 20:17) Note that she is not commissioned to announce Jesus’ resurrection but his ascension. Yet that evening, and the following Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples. So had he not yet ascended? Or had he ascended and was making appearances to the disciples? (There are more post-resurrection appearances in John 21.)
A careful reading of the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, suggests that everything it reports about Jesus after the resurrection took place on the day of resurrection itself: walking along with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, explaining the Scriptures to them, stopping to eat supper with them, and being recognized in the breaking of the bread. They then “that very hour” went back to Jerusalem and told the other disciples what they had experienced. “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.'” He convinces them that he is not a ghost; he has flesh and bones and he eats a piece of boiled fish in their presence. After some final words about how everything that has happened to him fulfills the Scriptures, he commissions the apostles to be his witnesses, tells them to remain in Jerusalem “until you have been clothed with power from on high,” then leads them out as far as Bethany, blesses them, “and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51). This seems to be an ascension of Jesus on the very day of his resurrection.
Why then does Luke begin the sequel to this Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, by speaking of Jesus appearing to the apostles “during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God?” (Acts 1:3) Apparently one time (one last time?) when Jesus was with his apostles, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (1:9) As they were gazing up, two men in white robes stood by them and said “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (1:11) Perhaps the ascension story in Acts 1 is simply a definitive leave-taking — Jesus impressing on his disciples that he will no longer be with them in the way they had known him.
So from one evangelist we have two ascensions of Jesus—on the day of resurrection and forty days later. In the Gospel of John, the resurrection, the ascension, and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the apostles all occur on one day. Luke spreads out these events over forty days (ascension) and fifty days (Pentecost). Forty is a significant amount of time in the Bible (Noah in the flood forty days; forty years of Israel wandering in the wilderness; Saul, David, and Solomon each reigning as king for forty years; Elijah and Jesus both fasting for forty days.) Luke obviously wanted to associate Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances “during forty days” with this significant biblical number.
During the fourth century many Christians were making pilgrimages to the Holy Land, as they called Roman Palestine. They gathered at sites associated with the life of Jesus in the gospels. The local church in Jerusalem and the Holy Land accommodated the interests and needs of Christian pilgrims by arranging liturgical rites at these places of pilgrimage, including on the Mount of Olives where a church was erected. On the actual dates of these events, as the Spanish nun Egeria tells us in her Travel Diary, special processions took place to the sites during which the pilgrims chanted psalms and litanies. At the site itself the Gospel narrative or another Scripture pericope which tells of the event was read. Then there was a procession back to the main Church in Jerusalem for the celebration of the Eucharist. Pilgrims brought these practices back to their home churches. This is how the liturgical calendar expanded and spread during the fourth and fifth centuries. This is how the Festival of the Ascension secured a place in the liturgical calendar forty days after Easter.
The fact that the ascension of Jesus became an article of faith in the ecumenical creeds—“He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father”—made it all the more important to observe the ascension. It was important for Christian faith and life. Why?
Well, for one thing, Jesus ascended bodily. As true man as well as true God, the Son of God has a body and that risen and glorified body is taken into God (“heaven”). In Christ, God has a body, and God relates bodily to us, who are bodily creatures, in the sacraments. By means of the sacraments we are in union with Christ. (See Frank Answers About the Body—God’s and Ours)
The Eucharist as the real presence of Christ is simply incomprehensible without Christ’s ascension into heaven. The human nature of Christ is circumscribed by time and place. The historical Jesus could only be in one place at a time. But now in heaven, the human nature of Jesus shares the omnipresence of the divine nature (this is called the communicatio idiomata—“the sharing of attributes”) and is therefore capable of being present in the bread and wine on every earthly altar when the bread and wine are proclaimed by the words of Christ to be Christ’s body and blood. Jesus is not absent from the earthly church; he is present in a more immediate and saturating way.
The elevation of the host—the high point of the late medieval Mass, signaled by the the words “This is my body” and the ringing of bells, at which worshipers knelt in adoration of Christ present in the transubstantiated bread.
Second, Christ is our “mediator and advocate” with the Father. As our human brother, as the Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes, Jesus knows our needs and presents them to the Father. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) Hence all Christian prayer is offered “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Because of this understanding, it became customary in medieval Europe to have processions through the fields on the three days leading up to Ascension Thursday, singing litanies which gathered up all human needs, including prayers for the seed time and a good harvest, suggesting that in his ascension Jesus took all these needs with him into heaven. The Sunday before the Ascension (the Fifth Sunday after Easter) was called “Rogate,” “Ask” Sunday.
Because Christ is “seated at the right hand of the Father,” he is in a position of authority and rule far above all rule and authority (Ephesians 1). He is the ruler of the universe “for the sake of the church.” Icons in Orthodox churches present Christ as “Pantocrator,” “ruler of all things.” We know that Christ is finally in charge and that all life, all human history, will end at his feet. There may be a Caesar on the earthly throne, but our Lord (“Kyrios”) is on the heavenly throne. There is a political dimension to the ascension of Christ.
These and other meanings of the ascension suggest that the day should be observed so that these meanings can be unpacked. As to when to celebrate Christ’s ascension as a festival, the obvious answer is: on the day of the ascension in the liturgical calendar. In the culture of Christendom it was possible for the holy day to be also a holiday, and the Mass or Eucharist could be the main event of the day (probably celebrated in the morning). Ascension is still a holiday in some European nations. Since that is not the case for us, observing the Eve of the Ascension probably makes the strongest liturgical case because the eve is the beginning of the liturgical day. But I think it is better to transfer the Ascension to the following—or preceding!—Sunday than to have no observance of it at all. It is too important an article of faith to be ignored.
Here’s a suggestion for an Ascension Eve or Ascension Day liturgy. As the weather gets nicer in the northern hemisphere there could be an outdoor Rogation procession singing psalms and the Great Litany. The procession ends at the church door. The Lesson from Acts 1 is read. Then the congregation moves into the church nave singing hymns. The Gospel is read and the paschal candle is extinguished. After a homily the liturgy proceeds with the Nicene Creed, the greeting of peace, and the Eucharist.
Even if the parish has an Ascension Eve or Ascension Day liturgy, it would be appropriate to sing Ascension hymns on the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I’ve always felt that Easter 7 feels like the Sunday of Jesus’ absence. That’s not true, of course, but absence has been an important religious experience for individuals and the church in modern times. There is that human aspect to consider for the disciples and for us. Can we wait faithfully “in the meantime” for what is promised?
Pastor Frank Senn