The History of Ascension Day
According to the accounts in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus appeared to many of his disciples during the 40 days following his resurrection. On the 40th day, he came again to the Apostles and led them out to the Mount of Olives where he instructed them to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Holy Spirit. Then, as they were watching, he ascended into clouds. As they continued to watch, two angels appeared and declared to them that, just as he ascended, Jesus would return in glory.
According to Augustine of Hippo, one of the early church fathers, the Feast of Ascension originated with the Apostles. John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa, contemporaries of Augustine, refer to it as being one of the oldest feasts practiced by the Church, possibly going as far back as AD 68. There is no written evidence, however, of the Church honoring Ascension Day until Augustine's time in the fourth century.
Ascension Day Traditions
As an Ecumenical feast, Ascension Day is one of the six holy days where attendance at Mass is mandatory for Roman Catholics and Anglicans. The event is generally a one-day public commemoration, although the Church, in keeping with earlier traditions regarding festivals, offers devotions for seven days.
The night before the feast, priests and deacons attend a vigil of prayers and scripture readings. On the day of the feast, Mass is attended and the Paschal candle, which was lit on Easter Sunday, is extinguished. Liturgies proclaiming the finished work of salvation and the ascension of the glorified Christ into Heaven are recited, followed later by evening prayers. At the end of the seven-day devotion, two additional days are kept by the priests, making a total of nine days (a novena). The novena allows for the preparation of Pentecost, which takes place the next day.
Churches around the world observe many Ascension Day traditions, such as "the blessing of the first fruits," in which grapes and beans are blessed. Some churches depict the Ascension of Christ by raising a statue of Jesus above the altar and lifting it through a special door in the roof. Other churches have outdoor processions with torches and banners. In an old Ascension Day tradition from England, parishioners carried a banner bearing the symbol of a lion at the head of the procession, and a second banner bearing the symbol of a dragon at the rear. This represented the victory of Christ over the devil.
For many Christians, Ascension Day's meaning provides a sense of hope that the glorious and triumphant return of Christ is near. It is a reminder of the Kingdom of God within their hearts, and of the ever-present Spirit of God, watching over and protecting them as they spread the light of Jesus' truth throughout the world.