ascension of christ

Ascension of Jesus

The general and most common understanding of the Christian doctrine of Ascension holds that Jesus bodily ascended to heaven in the presence of his apostles, forty days following his resurrection. It is narrated in Mark , Luke , Acts , and mentioned in , , , , . This is affirmed by Christian liturgy in the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Biblical accounts

The first account of the Ascension found in the Christian Bible is in the Gospel of Mark (16:14-19)—but see article on Mark 16. The description is brief: Jesus and the remaining eleven apostles are seated at a table, presumably in a room in or near Jerusalem. Jesus commands his followers to spread the Gospel (see also Great Commission) and tells them that those who believe will be known by their invulnerability to poison, ability to heal the sick, exorcise demons, speak in "new tongues," and the like. After delivering these final words, Jesus is received into heaven to sit at the right hand of God. No description of the Ascension itself is given; Mark simply states that it happened.

The Gospel of Luke is even more brief in its description (24:50-51). Jesus led the eleven to Bethany, not far from Jerusalem. While in the act of blessing them, Jesus was carried up to heaven.

In Mark, the Ascension appears to take place immediately after the Resurrection of Jesus. However, verse 19 of Mark 16 could legitimately be interpreted in light of the 40-day delay spoken of in Acts (see below). It simply states that "after the Lord had spoken to them, he was received up into heaven...." This might easily allow for a delay between the events of this verse and those preceding it; thus it does not necessarily contradict Luke's account in Chapter one of the Acts of the Apostles.

Not only is the Ascension related in the passages of Scripture cited above, but it is also elsewhere predicted and spoken of as an established fact. Thus, in , Christ asks the Jews: "What if then you shall see the son of Man ascend up where He was before?" and , He says to Mary Magdalen: "Do not touch (translated "approach" in the Aramaic) Me, for I am not yet ascended to My Father, but go to My brethren, and say to them: I ascend to My Father and to your Father, to My God and to your God." Again, in , , and in , the Ascension of Christ is spoken of as an accepted fact. Christians do not interpret this as a "state of full consciousness," but rather a spatial rising from the earth into the sky.

The third account of the Ascension is in the Acts of the Apostles ). For forty days after the Resurrection, Jesus continued to teach his followers. Jesus and the eleven were gathered near Mount Olivet, to the northeast of Bethany. Jesus tells his apostles that they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit, the "Comforter," see also Paraclete, and that they will spread his message the world over, i.e. the Great Commission. Jesus is taken up and received by a cloud. Two men clothed in white (i.e., angels) appear and tell the apostles that Jesus will return in the same manner as he was taken.

Even though these three accounts might appear contradictory, the reader should keep in mind that the original Gospel of Luke and Acts (Luke-Acts) were both written by the same author and are thus very unlikely to contain such glaring discrepancies. In fact, the Gospel of Luke never says that Jesus was taken up immediately after his Resurrection but simply states that the ascension happened "when he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany", which could very well be forty days after his Resurrection. As observed above, Mark's rendering leaves room for this same interpretation, depending upon how one reads the words "after the Lord had spoken to them...." (Mark 16:19). Many scholars assert that Mark either originally ended at 16:8 or had a different ending (see the article on Mark 16); this, however, is not universally agreed. Mark's Ascension account could therefore be read in the light of later authorship, probably with reference to the existing traditions surrounding the event.

The Gospel of Matthew ends at a mountain in Galilee, with Jesus commanding the Disciples to spread the Gospel to the ends of the world, baptizing in the name of the Trinity (the "Great Commission"). No mention is made of the Ascension.

The Catholic and Orthodox traditional view is that Mary was also present at the Ascension, following her mention in Acts 1.

Even within the pious Christian tradition, the language used by the Evangelists to describe the Ascension must be interpreted according to usage. To say that he was taken up or that he ascended, does not necessarily imply that they locate heaven directly above the earth; no more than the words "sitteth on the right hand of God" mean that this is his actual physical posture, but rather denotes his equality with the Father, according to Trinitarianism. In disappearing from their view "He was raised up and a cloud received Him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9), and entering into glory he dwells with the Father in the honour and power denoted by the scripture phrase.

Extra-biblical accounts

Outside of the Biblical Canon, the Ascension is discussed in the Pistis Sophia. Irenaeus in Against Heresies notes the Gnostic view that the Ascension happened eighteen months after the Resurrection. The apocryphal text known as the Apocryphon of James describes the teachings of Jesus to James and Peter 550 days after the resurrection, but before the ascension, suggesting an even longer period. The recently discovered Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas, like the canonical Gospel of Matthew, does not mention the Ascension.


Although the place of the Ascension is never distinctly stated, it would appear from Acts that it could have been Mount Olivet (the "Mount of Olives"), since after the Ascension the apostles are described as returning to Jerusalem from the mount that is called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, within a Sabbath day's journey. Tradition has consecrated this site as the Mount of Ascension.

Early Christians honored the Ascension by worshiping in a cave nearby, probably out of fear of persecution for worshipping openly. Later, after the conversion of Constantine, the first church was built on the site around 390 AD by Poimenia, a pious Roman lady. St. Helena erected over the site a basilica called "Eleona Basilica" (elaion in Greek means "olive garden", from elaia "olive tree," and has an oft-mentioned similarity to eleos meaning "mercy") in 392, which was destroyed by the Sassanid Persians in 614. It was rebuilt in the eighth century, destroyed again, but rebuilt a second time by the Crusaders. This final church was also destroyed by Muslims, leaving only the octagonal structure (called a martyrium—"memorial"—or "Edicule") which remains to this day.

The site was ultimately acquired by two emissaries of Saladin in the year 1198 and has remained in the possession of the Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem ever since. The martyrium, though now only bare stone, enshrines the rock said to bear the imprint of the right foot of Christ as he ascended, and is venerated by Christians as the last point on earth touched by the incarnate Christ. The Crusader building was converted to a mosque but was never used by Muslims since the overwhelming majority of visitors were Christian. As a gesture of compromise and goodwill, Saladin ordered the construction of a second mosque and mihrab two years later next door to the chapel for Muslim worship while Christians continued to visit the main chapel. Though still under the control of the Moslems, this Chapel of the Ascension is currently opened to visitors for a nominal fee.

The Russian Orthodox Church also maintains a Convent of the Ascension on the top of the Mount of Olives.

Christian theology

Eastern and Oriental Christianity

In Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theology, the Ascension is interpreted as the culmination of the Mystery of the Incarnation, in that it not only marked the completion of Jesus' physical presence among his apostles, but consummated the union of God and man when Jesus ascended in his glorified human body to sit at the right hand of God the Father. The Ascension and the Transfiguration both figure prominently in the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. The bodily Ascension into heaven is also understood as the final token of Christ's two natures: divine and human.

The Orthodox doctrine of salvation points to the Ascension to indicate that the state of redeemed man is higher than the state of man in Paradise before the fall.

The Orthodox understand Christ's physical presence to continue in the Church, which is the "Body of Christ" (). Jesus' promise that he will be "with you always" is understood not only in terms of his active, divine grace, but also in the divine institution of the church (human sinfulness notwithstanding).

Christ's Ascension into heaven is understood as a necessary prerequisite for the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (, , and especially ). The biblical texts regarding the Ascension also prophesy the Second Coming of Christ, stating that Jesus will return not only in the same glorious manner, but in the same place. In other words, the Second Coming and Last Judgment will take place on the Mount of Olives, with the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) below and to the left. is of theological consequence, in that it disproves the heresy of adoptionism.

Reformed tradition in Protestantism

The Westminster Confession of Faith (part of the Reformed tradition in Calvinism and influential in the Presbyterian church), in Article four of Chapter eight, states: "On the third day He arose from the dead, with the same body in which He suffered, with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sits at the right hand of His Father, making intercession, and shall return, to judge men and angels, at the end of the world."

Article 46 of the Heidelberg Catechism answers the question What do you confess when you say, He ascended into heaven? by stating "That Christ, before the eyes of His disciples, was taken up from the earth into heaven, and that He is there for our benefit until He comes again to judge the living and the dead."

The Catechism further explores aspects of the ascension, asking How does Christ's ascension into heaven benefit us? and replying, "First, He is our Advocate in heaven before His Father. Second, we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, our Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself. Third, He sends us His Spirit [...]"

The Second Helvetic Confession addresses the purpose and character of Christ's ascension in Chapter 11:

Christ Is Truly Ascended Into Heaven. We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, in his same flesh, ascended above all visible heavens into the highest heaven, that is, the dwelling-place of God and the blessed ones, at the right hand of God the Father. Although it signifies an equal participation in glory and majesty, it is also taken to be a certain place about which the Lord, speaking in the Gospel, says: 'I go to prepare a place for you' (John 14:2). The apostle Peter also says: 'Heaven must receive Christ until the time of restoring all things' (Acts 3:21).


Dates for Ascension Thursday, 2000-2020
Year Western Eastern
2000 June 1 June 8
2001 May 24
2002 May 9 June 13
2003 May 29 June 5
2004 May 20
2005 May 5 June 9
2006 May 25 June 1
2007 May 17
2008 May 1 June 5
2009 May 21 May 28
2010 May 13
2011 June 2
2012 May 17 May 24
2013 May 9 June 13
2014 May 29
2015 May 14 May 21
2016 May 5 June 9
2017 May 25
2018 May 10 May 17
2019 May 30 June 6
2020 May 21 May 28

The Ascension is one of the great feasts in the Christian liturgical calendar, and commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. Ascension Day is officially celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter. However not all countries hold the feast on this day. The feast is one of the ecumenical feasts (i.e., universally celebrated), ranking with the feasts of the Passion, of Easter and of Pentecost among the most solemn in the ecclesiastical calendar.


The observance of this feast is of great antiquity. Although no documentary evidence of it exists prior to the beginning of the fifth century, St. Augustine says that it is of Apostolic origin, and he speaks of it in a way that shows it was the universal observance of the Church long before his time. Frequent mention of it is made in the writings of St. John Chrysotom, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in the Constitution of the Apostles. The Pilgrimage of Aetheria speaks of the vigil of this feast and of the feast itself, as they were kept in the church built over the grotto in Bethlehem in which Christ was born. It may be that prior to the fifth century the fact narrated in the Gospels was commemorated in conjunction with the feast of Easter or Pentecost. Some believe that the much-disputed forty-third decree of the Council of Elvira (c. 300) condemning the practice of observing a feast on the fortieth day after Easter and neglecting to keep Pentecost on the fiftieth day, implies that the proper usage of the time was to commemorate the Ascension along with Pentecost. Representations of the mystery are found in diptychs and frescoes dating as early as the fifth century.


The Latin terms used for the feast, ascensio and, occasionally, ascensa, signify that Christ was raised up by his own powers. In Roman Catholicism the Ascension of the Lord is a Holy Day of Obligation. The three days before Ascension Thursday are sometimes referred to as the Rogation days and the previous Sunday, the Fifth Sunday after Easter, (or the Sixth Sunday of Easter) as Rogation Sunday. Ascension has a vigil and, since the fifteenth century, an octave, which is set apart for a novena of preparation for Pentecost, in accordance with the directions of Pope Leo XIII.

In Western Christianity, the earliest possible date is April 30, the latest possible date is June 3.


In the Eastern Church this feast is known in Greek as Analepsis, the "taking up", and also as the Episozomene, the "salvation from on high", denoting that by ascending into his glory Christ completed the work of our redemption. Ascension is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox liturgical year.

The feast is always observed with an All-night vigil. The day before is the Apodosis (leave-taking) of Pascha (i.e., the last day of the Feast of Easter). The Paroemia (Old Testament readings) at Vespers on the eve of the Feast are ; , ; and , . At the Divine Liturgy, the Epistle is , and the Gospel is . Ascension Thursday also commemorates the Holy Georgian Martyrs of Persia (17th - 18th centuries).

Ascension has an Afterfeast of eight days. The Sunday after Ascension is the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea. This council formulated the Nicene Creed up to the words, "He (Jesus) ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end." The Afterfeast ends on the following Friday, the Friday before Pentecost. The next day is appropriately a Saturday of the Dead (general commemoration of all faithful departed).

The Eastern Orthodox Church uses a different method of calculating the date of Pascha (Easter), so the Eastern Orthodox commemoration of Ascension will usually be after the western observance (anywhere from a week to as much as a month later; but occasionally on the same day). The earliest possible date for the feast is May 14, and the latest possible date is June 17. Some of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, however, observe Ascension on the same date as the Western Churches.


Certain customs were connected with the liturgy of this feast, such as the blessing of beans and grapes after the Commemoration of the Dead in the Canon of the Mass, the blessing of first fruits, afterwards done on Rogation Days, the blessing of a candle, the wearing of mitres by deacon and subdeacon, the extinction of the paschal candle, and triumphal processions with torches and banners outside the churches to commemorate the entry of Christ into heaven.

The antiquarian Daniel Rock records the English custom of carrying at the head of the procession the banner bearing the device of the lion and at the foot the banner of the dragon, to symbolize the triumph of Christ in his ascension over the evil one (and can also be interpreted by analogy as the triumph of England over Wales). In some churches the scene of the Ascension was vividly reproduced by elevating the figure of Christ above the altar through an opening in the roof of the church. In others, whilst the figure of Christ was made to ascend, that of the devil was made to descend.

In a number of countries, including the United States and, since 2007 in England & Wales, Roman Catholic dioceses commemorate the feast on the subsequent Sunday (the Sunday before Pentecost).

In some countries (e.g. Finland, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland) and Vanuatu it is a public holiday; Germany also holds its Father's Day on the same date.

In Indonesia, Ascension Day is a public holiday. All government offices, schools and certain businesses are closed on Ascension Day by law. Many newspapers choose not to publish on this day.

Coinciding with the liturgical feast is the annual commemoration by the Christian labour movement (especially syndical, in Belgium) of the encyclical Rerum Novarum issued by the Roman Catholic Pope Leo XIII on 15 May, 1891.



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