1 Timothy, Acts, Anglican Church, apostles, Apostles Creed, Ascension Day, Austria, Belgium, bishops, Book of Common Prayer, Catechism, cathedral choirs, Catholic Church, Christ, Christian calendar, Christian liturgy, Christianity, Christmas, christology, Common Worship, creed, Croatia, David, Denmark, disciples, Easter Sunday, ecumenical council, Ephesians, Epistles, Eucharist, Europe, Father, Father's Day, First Council of Constantinople, First Council of Nicaea, First Peter, France, Germany, God, Good Friday, heaven, holiday, Holy Spirit, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Jesus, John, king of Israel, Latin, Lord, Luke, Lutheran Church, mark, Matthew, Netherlands, New Testament, Nicene Creed, Norway, Paul, Pentecost, Peter, Presbyterian Church, prophecies, psalm, public holiday, resurrection, Roman Empire, Romans, Stephen, Sweden, United Methodist Church, United States, Vanuata
Today, May 30, is Ascension Day in 2019. In Christianity, Jesus ascended to heaven 40 days after his resurrection and this was witnessed by 11 apostles. Ascension Day is regarded as the fourth most important day on the Christian calendar. First is Christmas, celebrating Jesus’ birth, followed by Good Friday, remembering his death, then Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection, and then Ascension Day, commemorating his rise to heaven. Along with Christmas and Easter, the ascension is one of the three major feasts in Christianity and dates back to the fourth century.
Three thousand years ago, David, the second king of Israel, prophesied that Jesus would ascend to heaven and sit on the right-hand side of God. This is recorded in Psalm 110:1. Out of the 150 psalms, it is the one referred to most often in the New Testament. This alone suggests that the ascension is quite significant in Christianity. There are a number of other references to the ascension in the New Testament, attesting to the importance of the event.
One of the earliest mentions is in the Epistles, where Paul reports that Jesus is in heaven (Romans 10:6). Another early mention is in Acts (1:1-11), which states that Jesus presented himself to the apostles 40 days after the resurrection and was then taken up on a cloud and out of sight. Luke (24:31,50-53) believes Jesus was taken up on the same day as the resurrection. In Matthew (26:64), Jesus says he will be sitting next to God up in heaven. Mark 16:19 states that Jesus was received into heaven and sat beside God. John 14:12 and 20:17 refer to Jesus going back to his father. First Peter 3:21-22 declares that Jesus has gone to heaven and is with God. According to Ephesians 4:7-13, he rose above the heavens. 1 Timothy 3:16 has him “taken up in glory”. Stephen, in Acts 7:55-60, saw Jesus in heaven standing next to God.
The ascension is clearly referred to in the Nicene Creed put together by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE where about 300 bishops from throughout the Roman Empire discussed and agreed upon various christological issues. The original creed states that Jesus “ascended into heaven”. At the next ecumenical council, the First Council of Constantinople, in 381 CE, the wording was revised to read that he “ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father”. Modern accounts are essentially the same as the ancient versions.
These words are also contained in the Apostles’ Creed, a further indication of the significance of the ascension in Christianity. Line six of the original 12 line creed states in Latin that Jesus “ascendit ad caelos, sedet ad dexteram Patris omnipotentis”. Part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes this creed and says at line six: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” The wording is virtually the same as that contained in the creeds of other Christian churches, including the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer and also the Common Worship, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church and the United Methodist Church. Indeed, the ascension forms an important part of Christian liturgy, or regular pattern of worship, in all Christian churches, both eastern and western.
According to Christianity, the fact that Jesus ascended to heaven means he is Lord and has complete authority (Matthew 28:18 and Ephesians 1:20-23). At Pentecost, or the descent of the Holy Spirit, Peter talks about the ascension and that Israel should know that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:32-36). Further, Jesus was responsible for the Pentecost (Matthew 3:11 and Acts 1:5, 2:33). After the ascension, Jesus bestowed on his disciples the power to know God’s thoughts and to be able to make prophecies (Ephesians 4:10-11). Because the disciples saw Jesus physically ascend, they expect him to return as a visible being.
The ascension is important enough for many countries to declare Ascension Day a public holiday. These include many European countries, such as France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland, as well as Indonesia and Vanuatu. In Germany, Father’s Day is also celebrated on this day. Ascension Day is important in many countries where it is not a public holiday. In the United States, for example, special services are arranged on this day, often involving several churches. Cathedral choirs are sometimes combined for a Eucharist specific to the occasion.
(This is an edited version of an article I wrote called ‘The significance of Ascension Day in Christianity’ and posted to www.helium.com now gone.)