By Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Ascension is the 40th day of Eastertide (always a Thursday) and is often celebrated the following Sunday.
There doesn’t seem to be any documentation of the observance of Ascension before the 5th century. But St. Augustine believed the observance of Ascension actually originated with the Apostles.
The Ascension as a holy day is mentioned by St. John Crystostom and St. Gregory of Nyssa. So while we can’t know for certain when the observance of the Ascension began, it does seem to have been around by the 400s CE and possibly earlier.
Ascension in the Book of Acts
The Book of Acts begins with Jesus ascending, then the spirit descending (some have interpreted the Pentecost story as the parousia or so-called second coming) and after Pentecost the Church is empowered by the spirit to be more outreaching and growing.
Luke’s formula in Acts is Up/Down/Out
God’s anointed one is lifted up; God’s spirit then comes down; and this leads to God’s people being sent out to continue the work and ministry of Jesus in the world.
Ascending to Where?
The story of the Ascension comes from a time when the world was thought to be flat. The “up” and “down” symbolism of the story fits with ancient cosmology that was geocentric rather than heliocentric and that assumed that not only was the earth cosmically central, but it was also flat and “above” it was a celestial/spiritual realm. In a world that was thought to be flat and situated below a divine city-state at a time before gravity was understood, “rising” to a world “above” would not have been as problematic as it might be for contemporary thinkers today.
However, another word for “ascension” used in the New Testament is “exaltation”. The Ascension might be a euphemism for Jesus being exalted in the hearts of his followers and in the shared understanding of the Christian community. In that view, Jesus doesn’t ascend to a place, but to a reality beyond time and place whereby the Christ Spirit remains available to all of us who seek to be Christ’s body on earth.