Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated forty days after Easter. It is a sacred day on the Christian calendar commemorating the teaching that Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven forty days after being resurrected.
According to the Biblical accounts in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, on the fortieth day following his resurrection, Jesus led the Apostles to the Mount of Olives, instructed them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, and then ascended into the sky. Two angels appeared and promised that he would one day return in the same manner from the sky.
When the tradition of observing Ascension Day began is not entirely clear. There are written records of it being an important Church feast day as far back as the beginning of the fifth century. However, St. Augustine writes of it as a long-standing tradition going back well before that, indeed even to the time of the Apostles themselves within decades of the Biblical events.
Ascension Day remains an important holy day for the Eastern Orthodox Churches and for the Catholic Church, and was retained by the Anglican Church in Britain, but does not play as significant a role in most other Protestant denominations.
For the Eastern Church, the Ascension Day feast is observed with an all-night vigil, followed by an afterfeast of eight days. Because the Eastern Church celebrates Easter anywhere from the same day to a month later than in the West, Ascension Day too will typically fall later than in the West.
In Catholicism, Ascension Day is a Holy Day of Obligation. The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday prior to Ascension Day (forty days inclusive from Easter is always a Thursday, since Easter is on Sunday) are called Rogation days, and the Sunday before Ascension Day is called Rogation Sunday.
Catholic ecclesiastical provinces in some countries, with Vatican permission, have moved the observance of Ascension Day to the forty-third day inclusive from Easter, i.e., to Sunday instead of Thursday. The practice is split in the United States, with some ecclesiastical provinces observing Ascension Day on Thursday and some on Sunday.
As an Ecumenical feast, Ascension Day is one of the six holy days for Catholics and Anglicans where attending mass is mandatory. On the eve of Ascension Day, priests and deacons attend a vigil of prayer and Scripture readings. On the day itself, the Paschal candle, lit on Easter, is extinguished. Liturgies and evening prayers are read.
Among the traditions observed by some churches is the “blessing of the first fruits,” in which grapes and beans are blessed. Many churches hold outdoor processions with torches and banners; one version in England includes a banner with a lion in the front and a banner with a dragon at the rear, symbolizing Jesus’ triumph over Satan. Some churches even recreate the ascension by lifting a statue of Jesus from the altar through a hole in the roof of the church.
In some parts of the world, in connection with Jesus’ flying or going up, the feast always includes some type of bird, or people climb a hill or mountain.
In some areas of Italy, crickets have come to be associated with Ascension Day; in fact the holiday is also known as the Feast of the Cricket. It is traditional for children to catch crickets in little cricket boxes. If they continue to chirp when brought home, this is considered good luck.
Ascension Day is especially important in Venice, due to its connection with certain political events in the history of the city. In the year 1000, the Doge of Venice chose Ascension Day to join forces with the Dalmatians against the Slavs, successfully securing Venice’s safety. At the time of Ascension Day in 1177, the Doge of Venice helped broker a peace between Frederick Barbarossa and the Papal States that saved the States from possible ruin. The Pope sent a sacred ring to the Doge to symbolize that Venice would always have dominion over the sea. This soon came to be interpreted as a “marriage” with the sea (there being little difference historically between marrying a woman and gaining dominion over her). Each year on Ascension Day, the Doge (now the Mayor) leads a procession of boats and ceremonially throws a ring into the sea, stating “We marry you, oh sea, as a symbol of perpetual dominion.”
But regardless of the specific customs and traditions, the primary purpose of Ascension Day for Christians is to reflect on the promise of Jesus to come back for them and bring them to join him in Heaven for eternity.