In Depth

What is Ascension Day and how is it marked?

The little-known Christian festival holds major theological significance

praying

Today, Christians around the world mark Ascension Day. Despite being a public holiday in more than a dozen countries (although, sadly, not the UK), the festival has a relatively low profile outside the church. So what’s it all about?

What is Ascension Day?

For 40 days after his resurrection on Easter Sunday, the Bible says that Jesus travelled and preached with his apostles, preparing them for his departure from Earth.

Ascension Day marks the moment Jesus literally ascended into heaven before his disciples, at the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem.

Acts provides the longest account of Christ’s farewell to his disciples, bidding them to preach the word of God and assuring them of his eventual return for the Second Coming, the day of judgement in which the virtuous will be saved and the wrongdoers condemned.

“After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight,” the book says.

“They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven’.”

When is Ascension Day?

Ascension Day is celebrated across all branches of Christianity on the sixth Thursday after Easter, exactly 40 days after Easter Sunday.

However, because the Eastern Orthodox Church uses the older Julian calendar rather than the modern Gregorian calendar to calculate the date, Orthodox Christians will celebrate Ascension Day a week later than their Catholic and Protestant counterparts.

How is it observed?

Ascension Day is not a major event in most Protestant parishes, but in the Catholic Church the Feast of the Ascension is one of the Holy Days of Obligation, meaning that believers are obliged to attend Mass.

For this reason, some Catholic dioceses now mark Ascension Day on the Sunday after its traditional Thursday date, to enable more parishioners to attend services.

“Like other Holy Days of Obligation, Catholics are encouraged to spend the day in prayer and contemplation,” says Thought Co.

Historically, the day was marked with a procession with torches and banners. The tradition persists “in some sections of Germany and central Europe”, says Catholic Culture, where, “preceded by candles and cross, the faithful walk with prayer and song through fields and pastures, and the priest blesses each lot of ground”.

Nine days after Ascension Day, Christians around the world celebrate Pentecost, which marks the descent of the Holy Spirit on a gathering of early Christians, giving them the sudden ability to speak many languages and thus enabling them to preach to peoples of many nations.

Therefore, church readings for the period from Ascension Day to Pentecost focus on dedication to spreading Christ’s word and hope for eternal salvation at the Second Coming.

In Germany, Ascension Thursday coincides with Father’s Day, or Men’s Day, which dates back to the 18th century as a way to celebrate Jesus returning to the Holy Father.

“Traditionally men would be placed in a cart or carriage and brought to the town or village square, and the proud father who had sired the most children received a prize from the mayor, often a big piece of ham,” says Der Spiegel.

Colourful parades, commemorating the walking of the apostles, became common by the 19th century but the day evolved. And “by the 20th century it had reached its current incarnation: The Day of Drink”, says the German news magazine.

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