The ascension which we celebrate on May 12 this year, calculates as forty days after Easter and concludes the visible permanence of God amongst men. It is a prelude to Pentecost and marks the beginning of the Church’s history. This episode in history is described by the Gospels of S. Mark and S. Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles. Until 1977 in Italy it was also a public holiday.
With the solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus to Heaven ends the earthly life of Jesus who with his body, in the presence of the apostles, physically unites himself to the Father, and not to reappear on Earth until his Second Coming παρουσία Parusìa (arrival, coming, presence) for the Final judgement. This festival is very old and is attested as early as the fourth century. For the Catholic Church the Ascension is normally calculated as 40 days after Easter, that is, the Thursday of the sixth week of Easter time, that is, the one following the sixth Sunday of Easter. In the Symbolum Apostolicum the Apostles’ Creed we hear it mentioned by these words: “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead..”
In the Orthodox Church the Ascension is one of the 12 great feasts. The date of the celebration is established from the date of Easter in the Orthodox calendar. It is known both with the Greek word ἀνάληψις Análēpsis (to ascend) and with ἐπισωζομένη Episozomene (salvation). The latter term emphasises that Jesus ascending to heaven completed the work of redemption. The Acts, which explicitly mention the Mount of Olives, are clearer still, since after the ascension the disciples “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount that is called Olivet, which is nigh Jerusalem, within a sabbath day’s journey.” (Acts 1:12) Tradition has consecrated this place as the Mount of Ascension.
WHAT IS THE BIBLICAL DEFINITION OF THE WORD ASCENSION?
According to a spontaneous and universal conception, recognised by the Bible, God lives in a higher place and man to meet him must rise, rise. The idea of rapprochement with God is spontaneously given by the mountain and in Exodus 19.; Moses is transmitted the prohibition to ascend to Mount Sinai, which implied above all this approach to the Lord; “And Moses said to the Lord: The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou did charge, and command, saying: Set limits about the mount, and sanctify it. “And the Lord said to him: Go, get thee down: and thou shalt come up, thou and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people pass the limits, nor come up to the Lord, lest he kill them”. The command of Yahweh does not refer so much to a local ascent, but to a spiritual approach; one must first purify oneself and gather oneself in order to be able to hear his voice. Not only does God dwell in high places, but he has chosen the high places to establish his dwelling there; also to go to his shrines it is necessary to ‘go up’. So along the whole of the Bible, the references to “going up” are many and continuous and when Jerusalem takes the place of the ancient shrines, the crowds of pilgrims ‘ascend the holy mountain’; “Ascending” to Jerusalem meant going to Yahweh, and the term, beholden by a real geographical position, was used both by popular symbology for those who entered the promised land, as for those who ‘ascended’ to the holy city. In the New Testament, Jesus himself “ascends” to Jerusalem with his parents, when he meets with the doctors in the Temple and still “rises” to the holy city, as a prelude to “elevation” on the cross and to the glorious Ascension.
WHICH TEXTS TALK ABOUT THIS EVENT?
The Books of the New Testament contain sporadic references to the mystery of the Ascension; the Gospels of Matthew and John do not speak of it and both end with the account of apparitions after the Resurrection. Mark ends by saying: “And the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God.” (Mark 16:19); Luke speaks instead of it: “And he led them out as far as Bethania: and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. And it came to pass, whilst he blessed them, he departed from them, and was carried up to heaven.”(Luke 24:50-51). Still Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, ascribed to him as an author from the earliest times, to the initial chapter (Acts 1:11), places the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, on the 40th day after Easter and adds: “And when he had said these things, while they looked on, he was raised up: and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were beholding him going up to heaven, behold two men stood by them in white garments. Who also said: Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, as you have seen him going into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11). The other authors hint only occasionally to the fact or presuppose it, the same s. Paul, although he knows the relationship between the Resurrection and the glorification, does not pose the problem of how Jesus entered the celestial world and was transfigured; in fact in the various letters he does not mention the passage from the terrestrial to the celestial phase. But they reiterate the enthronement of Christ to the right hand of the Father, where he will remain until the end of the centuries, cloaked in power and glory; “Therefore, if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God: Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God“. (Colossians 3:1-3)
WHAT ARE THE HISTORIC SOURCES?
Luke, the third evangelist, in the Acts of the Apostles specifies that Jesus after his passion, showed himself to the eleven remaining apostles, with many trials, appearing to them for forty days and speaking of the Kingdom of God; it must be said that the number of ‘forty days’ is full of symbolism, which often occurs in the events of the wandering Jewish people, but also with Jesus, who fasted in the desert for 40 days. St. Paul in the same ‘Acts’ (Acts 13:31) states that the Lord “Who was seen for many days, by them who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who to this present are his witnesses to the people”, without specifying the number, so it must be a reliable hypothesis, that it is a symbolic number. The Ascension according to Luke, occurred on the Mount of Olives, when Jesus with the Apostles to whom he had appeared, went towards Bethany, after having repeated his promises and invoked upon them protection and divine assistance, and rising towards the heaven as described above (Acts, 1-11). Mount Oliveto, from which Jesus ascended to Heaven, was embellished by St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great with a beautiful basilica towards the end of the fourth century, Church of Eleona, sites of Christ’s birth and ascension, respectively; the rich matron and pilgrim Poemenia built another large basilica, rich in mosaics and precious marbles, on the type of the Pantheon in Rome, in the precise place of the Ascension marked in the center by a small roundabout. Then in the alternating instability that saw Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Crusaders over the centuries, the basilicas were unfortunately destroyed; in 1920-27 by vote of the Catholic world, the remnants of the excavations are used to construct a most grandiose temple, and dedicated to the Sacred Heart, while the round aedicule church of Poemenia became a small octagonal mosque from the 16th century onwards.
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ASCENSION?
Saint John in the fourth Gospel, places the triumph of Christ in his completeness in the Resurrection, after all the other evangelists had given little importance to the Ascension, confirm that the true ascension, that is the transfiguration and the passage of Jesus into the world of glory, happened on Easter morning, an event that escaped every experience and out of human control. Correcting an ample pervasive mentality, the Gospel texts seeks to place the ascension and enthronement of Jesus on the right of the Father, on the very day of His death, He then returned from Heaven to manifest Himself to His own and completes His instruction for a period of ‘forty‘ days. Therefore the Ascension narratives by Luke, Mark and the Acts of the Apostles does not in fact refer to the Saviour’s first entry into glory, but rather to His last apparition and departure which concludes His visible manifestations upon earth. Consequently, the intent of the accounts of the Ascension is not to describe a real return to the Father, but to make known some of the characteristics of the last manifestation of Jesus, a manifestation of farewell, necessary? yes! because He must return to the Father to complete the Redemption of all: “But I told you not these things from the beginning, because I was with you. And now I go to him that sent me, and none of you asketh me: Whither goest thou? But because I have spoken these things to you, sorrow hath filled your heart. But I tell you the truth: it is expedient to you that I go: for if I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16: 5-7). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 659) gives Ascension this definition: “But during the forty days when he eats and drinks familiarly with his disciples and teaches them about the kingdom, his glory remains veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity, “Jesus’ final apparition ends with the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory, symbolized by the cloud and by heaven, where he is seated from that time forward at God’s right hand. He is the Lord, who now reigns with his humanity in the eternal glory of the Son of God and ceaselessly intercedes in our favor with the Father. He sends us his Spirit and gives us the hope of reaching him one day, having prepared a place for us “
ITS A HOLIDAY ALSO FROM A SECULAR POINT OF VIEW?
The first testimony of the Feast of the Ascension is given by the historian of the origins of the Church, the bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius (265-340); the feast falling on the Thursday following the fifth Sunday after Easter, is a movable feast and in some Catholic nations it is a Holy day of obligation, recognised in some secular calendars. In Italy, in agreement with the Italian State, which required a reform of the holidays, eliminating some festive
bridges, the Italian Episcopal Conference fixed the liturgical and secular service, on the Sunday following the canons to 40 days after Easter. In the Ambrosian Rite, however, it is celebrated on Thursdays. On Ascension Day there are many popular Italian festivals in which many ancient traditions are re-enacted, linked to therapeutic values, which would be conferred by a divine blessing to the waters. In Venice there was a great fair, accompanied by the “Sposalizio del Mare“, the Marriage of the Sea, a ceremony in which the Doge aboard
the “Bucintoro“, threw a gold ring in the waters of the Venetian lagoon, to symbolise the Venetians dominion over the sea; some 8 miles away from St. Mary’s Hermitage in a town called Margate (UK) the Greek Orthodox Church and Greek and Cypriot Community of the Archangel Michael re-enact the blessing of the sea waters every year, in Florence the “Festa del grillo” is celebrated. (This link opens a Youtube video of the Festa del Grillo).
HOW THE ASCENSION HAS BEEN DEPICTED IN THE ARTS?
The story of the Scriptures and the liturgical celebration of this mystery can be found in miniatures of famous codices, among them the Syrian Gospels of Rabula in the
Biblioteca Laurenziana of Florence, and in mosaics and ivories from the 5th century. The theme of the Ascension, adapted well to the vertical rhythm of the tympanum, above the gates of the Romanesque and Gothic churches; an example is the gable of the northern door of the cathedral of Chartres (12th century). But the representation reached remarkable artistic value with Giotto (1266-1337) who portrayed the Ascension in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. We also remember a fresco by Buffalmacco (13th century) in the Camposanto of Pisa; a terracotta by Luca Della Robbia (1400-1482) in the National Museum of Florence; a fresco by Maestro Melozzo da Forlì († 1494) now in the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome; a Tempera on panel by Mantegna (1431-1506) in Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi; the Sansepolcro Altarpiece by Perugino († 1523) now in the Museum of Lyon; the famous fresco
by Correggio († 1534) in the dome of the Church of S. Giovanni in Parma called the Vision of St John Evangelist on Patmos, Ascension of Christ among Apostles; the fresco by Tintoretto (d. 1594) in the Scuola di S. Rocco in Venice. In a treasure chest of the Duomo of Monza, Christ ascends into heaven,
according to a typical oriental iconography, seated on the throne; in other representations He ascends to Heaven among a crowd of Angels, in front of the ecstatic looks of the Apostles and of the Virgin.