Since the fourth century, when the Church in Jerusalem began to mark the Ascension of our Lord as a special occasion, this Feast has been celebrated in the Christian Church. Just as Ash Wednesday comes forty days before Easter, so Ascension Day is dated forty days after Easter. This reckoning stems, of course, from the assertion in the Epistle that our Lord, after His Passion, was “seen of them (the apostles) forty days” (Acts 1:3).
It has been said that Ascension Day is one of the most neglected occasions in the Christian calendar. Yet surely, it is at least on a par in importance with Christmas Day. Just as Christmas marks the coming into the world of God the Son, so Ascension Day marks His leaving the world to return to the Father. Part of the reason for neglect of this day is, of course, the fact that it never comes on a Sunday, but always on a weekday, Thursday.
What happened that day? The Gospels according to Sts. Mark and Luke record the event briefly. Sts. Paul and Peter refer to it still more briefly in several of their Epistles. The fullest account is found in the Acts of the Apostles. After promising to send the Holy Ghost to empower and inspire them, Jesus is described as having been “taken up” and received into a cloud “out of their sight.” Two angels -- two men who “stood by in white apparel” assured the apostles that Jesus would eventually return in like manner.
Our Lord’s return to the Father was, of course, entirely outside the range of ordinary human life and occurrences. Yet the resurrected body which had returned to the disciples from the Tomb did depart from them in a manner which they saw and understood to be an “ascent” in a return to God the Father and which put the final seal upon their acknowledgement and understanding of Christ as the Son of God. They returned to Jerusalem rejoicing and none of them ever again wavered in his faith.
The Ascension is the period at the end of the earthly story. The story began with the Incarnation of God as Jesus, as a baby born to a Virgin by the Holy Ghost. It began with miracle and as mystery, a manifestation of God’s power and love. The Incarnation was announced by an archangel and accompanied by a “multitude of the heavenly host” singing hosannas.
In like manner, God withdrew His Son again to Himself in “heaven.” The corporal/spiritual resurrected body simply disappeared “upward” from the sight of the apostles. This end to the earthly story was, again, a miracle and a mystery. And again, like the beginning, it was attested to by angels present at the scene. Just as the birth to a Virgin was a promise from God and a sign of the Babe’s divinity, so the departure from Mount Olivet was a promise from God and confirmation of the Lord’s divine nature.
Annunciation, Incarnation, Birth, Ministry, Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension --these are the chief milestones along the Way of our faith. Each one is an essential element in the Testament of our Lord’s life and purpose and union with God the Father and God the Holy Ghost in the Trinity. Ascension Day should be an annual occasion for celebration both solemn and joyful, for all Anglicans as well as all other Christians.