Ascension, Feast Of The
ASCENSION, FEAST OF THE, one of the oecumenical festivals of the Christian Church, ranking in solemnity with those of Christmas, of Easter and of Pentecost. It is held forty days after Easter, or ten days before Whitsunday, in celebration of Christ's ascension into heaven forty days after the resurrection. It always falls on a Thursday, and the day is known as Ascension Day, or Holy Thursday. The festival is of great antiquity; and though there is no discoverable trace of it before the middle of the 4th century, subsequent references to it assume its long establishment. Thus St Augustine (Ep. 54 ad Januar.) mentions it as having been kept from time immemorial and as probably instituted by the apostles. Chrysostom, in his homily on the ascension, mentions a celebration of the festival in the church of Romanesia outside Antioch, and Socrates (Hist. eccles. vii. 26) records that in the year 390 the people of Constantinople "of old custom" celebrated the feast in a suburb of the city. As these two references suggest, the festival was associated with a professional pilgrimage, in commemoration of the passing of Christ and his apostles to the Mount of Olives; such a procession is described by Adamnan, abbot of Iona, as taking place at Jerusalem in the 7th century, when the feast was celebrated in the church on Mount Olivet (de loc. sanct. i. 22). The Peregrinatio of Etheria (Silvia), which dates from c.A.D. 385, says that the festival was held in the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem (Duchesne, Chr. Worship, p. 515). In the West, however, in the middle ages, the procession with candles and banners outside the church was taken as symbolical of Christ's triumphant entry into heaven.
In the East the festival is known as the , "taking up," or , a term first used in the Cappadocian church, and of which the meaning has been disputed, but which probably signifies the feast "of completed salvation." The word ascensio, adopted in the West, implies the ascension of Christ by his own power, in contradistinction to the assumptio, or taking up into heaven of the Virgin Mary by the power of God.
In the Roman Catholic Church the most characteristic ritual feature of the festival is now the solemn extinction of the paschal candle after the Gospel at high mass. This candle, lighted at every mass for the forty days after Easter, symbolizes the presence of Christ with his disciples, and its extinction his parting from them. The custom dates from 1263, and was formerly confined to the Franciscans; it was prescribed for the universal church by the Congregation of Rites on the 19th of May 1697. Other customs, now obsolete, were formerly associated with the liturgy of this feast; e.g. the blessing of the new beans after the Commemoration of the Dead in the canon of the mass (Duchesne, p. 183). In some churches, during the middle ages, an image of Christ was raised from the altar through a hole in the roof, through which a burning straw figure representing Satan was immediately thrown down.
In the Anglican Church Ascension Day and its octave continue to be observed as a great festival, for which a special preface to the consecration prayer in the communion service is provided, as in the case of Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, and Trinity Sunday. The celebration of the Feast of the Ascension was also retained in the Lutheran churches as warranted by Holy Scripture.
See Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (1900), s. "Himmelfahrtsfest"; L. Duchesne, Christian Worship (2nd Eng. ed., London, 1904); The Catholic Encyclopaedia (London and New York, 1907).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)