Did you know the church’s celebration of Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t stop at Easter? Of course, we know we can celebrate and be thankful for Jesus’ resurrection all year long, but throughout church history Christians have observed another important moment after Jesus rose from the dead: his ascension into heaven. This event, called Ascension Thursday, is celebrated forty days after Easter Sunday and ten days prior to Pentecost. It is also called Holy Thursday or, simply, Ascension Day.
This celebration is meaningful for Christians because it tells the story of Christ’s entrance into heaven and foreshadows our resurrection and glorification as believers. It also looks forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and beginning of the church. The Ascension is a big moment worth celebrating!
We at What’s in the Bible? want to tell you more about this joyful occasion and give you practical ways to observe Ascension Thursday with your family and friends.
What are the historical/biblical accounts?
You can read the Ascension story in a few places in the Bible. Look up Luke 24 as a family and read verses 36-53 together.
Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus brings his earthly ministry to a close by appearing to his disciples at the Mount of Olives. During this appearance he gives his final instructions to his disciples. After speaking, Jesus is taken up by a cloud into heaven. Two angels are present at the Ascension and speak with the disciples, telling them Jesus will return the same way he left (i.e., bodily and visibly).
Now that you know the story of the Ascension, you can discuss as a family why it’s important to understand.
The Ascension is important for two main reasons:
First, Christ’s ascension shows us that his work on earth was completed! God had sent Jesus with a very special mission. When that mission was complete – when Jesus died, took the punishment for all of our sin, and rose again, Jesus returned to his Father in heaven. Now Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father!
Second, Jesus is preparing his disciples for what will happen next! Can you imagine being a disciple left with the Great Commission? Jesus tells them to spread the Good News about him to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth! But he promises them that he will send a helper since he is leaving them.
The Holy Spirit is that helper! The Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Pentecost signals the beginning of the Apostles’ ministry and the creation of the Church – not the building, but the group of Christ-followers. Jesus continues his ministry through the church – that ministry includes sharing the Good News, loving and caring for other people, and glorifying God the Father.
Acts tells the story of the earliest disciples and how began the church’s ministry. The rest of the New Testament continues the story, and we are still called to the same ministry today. How do we live out our lives as Christians knowing we have the same power of the Holy Spirit and the same call as the earliest disciples?
How do Christians honor Ascension Day?
To early Christians, believing in the Ascension was a critical part of being a Christian! In fact, the Apostles’ Creed (one of the earliest statements of faith in Christianity) affirms a belief in Christ’s ascension when it says that Jesus, “ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.”
Easter, Ascension and Pentecost were celebrated regularly every Sunday throughout the early centuries of the church. St. Augustine traces back a universal observation of the Ascension by the church to the time of the Apostles. Observing Ascension Thursday forty days after Easter goes back as far as the 4th century in western tradition.
Today, the Catholic Church recognizes Ascension Thursday as a Holy Day of Obligation. The Catholic feast commemorating the Ascension begins a nine-day series of prayers, known as novenas, which ask for the gifts and the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Protestant churches (including the Anglican Church) and the Eastern Orthodox Church also observe the Ascension in their liturgical calendar and practices. Overall, a number of blessings, rituals and customs are used by a number of church traditions to symbolize and enhance the Ascension’s significance in the Christian’s life.
Judging by the rich history of this celebration, it is clear that Ascension Thursday is a significant day on the Christian calendar. Ascension Thursday focuses primarily on Christ’s triumphant work in redemption and his glorification. When Christians celebrate the Ascension they declare that Jesus is king and Lord. John Calvin, one of the greatest theologians to come out of the Protestant Reformation, placed special emphasis on the Ascension in his theology, because it showed how Christ reigns as supreme king over the earth and his church.
Ascension Thursday should not be viewed as an unhappy occasion, even though it marks the day Jesus departed the earth. Instead, it is a day to celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death and his eternal reign at God the Father’s right hand (Ps. 110:1). Ascension Thursday should be a day filled with joy and hope that we will one day be resurrected and glorified like Christ (1 John 3:2).
How can families commemorate it?
There’s no end to the creative ways you can celebrate Ascension Thursday with your family. A time-honored practice is to read the Ascension story in Acts 1:2-11 as a family. After reading, discuss with your children the significance of the Ascension and why it is an important part of Christian belief.
A great way to celebrate the joy and hope surrounding Ascension Thursday is through poetry and singing. You can write your own poems or songs or use ones that already exist. You could also put on a play of the Ascension with each family member playing different characters in the story.
For young children, you can have them draw a picture of the Ascension. Ask them to share their drawing with you and talk to you about it.
Of course, Ascension Thursday can be with others too. You can host a meal, party or picnic and invite your friends and neighbors to attend. Take time during the event to highlight the reason for the gathering. This is a great way to take your celebration out into your community and share the joy of Christ’s victory and reign with others.
 To read the Apostles’ Creed in its entirety, go to: http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/apostles_creed.html.
 Supplemental Liturgical Resource, vol. 7, Liturgical Year: the Worship of God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, (c)1992), 1, accessed April 27, 2015, http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy1206/91037587-d.html.
 J Neil Alexander, Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks, and Seasons (New York: Church Publishing, 2014), 19, Electronic Format.
 A category that designates the Catholic Church’s most important feast days on its liturgical calendar. All Catholics are required to attend Mass on Holy Days of Obligation.
 The vast majority of Eastern Orthodox churches use a different method for calculating Easter, which means Ascension Thursday is typically celebrated after the western dating.
 “Certain customs were connected with the liturgy of [Ascension Thursday], such as the blessing of beans and grapes after the Commemoration of the Dead in the Canon of the Mass, the blessing of first fruits, afterwards done on Rogation Days, the blessing of a candle, the wearing of mitres by deacon and subdeacon, the extinction of the paschal candle, the triumphal procession with torches and banners outside the churches to commemorate the entry of Christ into heaven. Rock records the English custom of carrying at the head of the procession the banner bearing the device of the lion and at the foot the banner of the dragon, to symbolize the triumph of Christ in His ascension over the evil one. In some churches the scene of the Ascension was vividly reproduced by elevating the figure of Christ above the altar through an opening in the roof of the church. In others, whilst the figure of Christ was made to ascend, that of the devil was made to descend.” John Wynne, Catholic Encyclopedia.
 Supplemental Liturgical Resource.