What is Ascension Day and why do we celebrate it?

A fresco depicting the Ascension of Jesus Christ in St Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Thursday 9th May is Ascension Day, which is a public holiday in many countries. This is the story.


The English word ascension comes from Latin via Norman French. The English word 'to ascend' means to go up, and an 'ascent' the process of doing it. In English we talk about the 'ascent' of Mount Everest or a person's 'ascension to the presidency'. In theology, ascension is the idea that some individuals ascend to heaven without dying first, or die first and are bodily resurrected and taken into heaven.

Ascension in the Jewish Scriptures

In the Bible the idea of ascension is sometimes applied to Enoch, who was Noah's great-grandfather. The text says, 'And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him' (Genesis 5:24). It is not totally clear what this means, but some people interpret it to mean that Enoch had an ascension into heaven. A clearer story is told of Elijah. The text reads 'behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven' (2 Kings 2:11).

There is a tradition that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah or Pentateuch. He may have written some of them, but he could not have written it all because his death and burial is detailed at the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 34:5-6), which is good evidence if any that he did not write at least this bit. Despite recording his death and burial, there nevertheless arose the idea, that he had some kind of ascension into heaven. St Jude tells the story of Michael the Archangel contending about his body (Jude verse 9).

Indeed the idea that Moses and Elijah ascended into heaven allows for them to re-appear at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36 and 2 Peter 1:16-18).

The Ascension of Jesus in the Gospels

After the resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with the disciples (Acts 1:3). The scene of the Ascension is the Mount of Olives near Bethany near Jerusalem. The Gospel accounts by Matthew and John do not record the ascension, but it is recorded by Mark and Luke. Mark mentions it at the end of his Gospel where it reads: 'So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God' (Mark 16:19).

Luke very briefly mentions it in the last few verses of his Gospel account which reads: 'And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven' (Luke 24:50-51). After that 'they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God' (Luke 24:52-53).

In John's Gospel, the Ascension is not described but it is referenced. John records Jesus saying 'No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man' (John 3:13) and then he says to the disciples 'What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending where he was before?' (John 6:62), and after the resurrection, he says to Mary Magdalene, 'Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father ... ' (John 20:17).

The Ascension in Acts

Luke then fleshes out his account in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. They were on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:20) and Jesus spoke with them about the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-8) and then 'he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight' (Acts 1:9). As they looked up and saw him go, two angels appeared (Acts 1:10) and said that he would one day return in the manner he left (Acts 1:11). They then returned to the Upper Room in Jerusalem as the prelude to Pentecost.

The Ascension in the Epistles

The Ascension was not in dispute in the Early Church and it is alluded to many times in the Epistles. St Peter wrote about Jesus 'who is gone up into heaven, and is on the right hand of God' (1 Peter 3:22). St Paul mentions the ascension in his letter to the church at Ephesus when he wrote: 'When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men' (Ephesians 4:8-10). In Philippians 2:9 Jesus is described as having been exalted. In Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1 St Paul describes Jesus as being 'at the right hand of God'. He also wrote to Timothy that Jesus was 'received up into glory' (1 Timothy 3:16).

Traditional Site

The traditional site of the Ascension is on the Mount of Olives, on which the village of Bethany sits. A church building was erected at the end of the fourth century, which was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times. Today there is an octagonal chapel, called the Chapel of the Ascension. It houses a slab of stone which reputedly contains the right footprint of Jesus where he stood before he ascended. The belief in the Ascension of Jesus is one of those beliefs which is also held by Muslims, so the site is used and venerated by both Muslims and Christians.

The Problem of the Ascension

The Ascension is a difficult story for many. Most people today do not hold to what seemed to be the ancient three-tiered cosmology of hell below us, earth in the middle, and heaven above us. Many believers prefer to think of heaven as a spiritual realm, and the idea that Jesus ascended into it bodily is a bit puzzling or even awkward, even to those evangelicals who believe it. As a result the Ascension tends not be addressed by apologetics, and there are very few books on it.

Some people prefer to think of the Ascension as symbolic, or they imagine a spiritual ascension, or as Jesus having a new immortal spiritual body. The problem with this is that the New Testament narrative goes out of its way to describe the resurrection as physical and bodily. The tomb is empty, Thomas puts his fingers in the wounds which his body still has (John 20:24-29), Jesus eats grilled fish with the apostles after the resurrection (Luke 24:41-43), and Jesus himself explains that he is not a ghost nor a spirit (Luke 24:36-39). The implication is that if the resurrection and the Ascension were not bodily, then the tomb would not have needed to be empty.

The Ascension in Church History

The Ascension is one of the beliefs articulated in the Nicene Creed adopted in AD 325 with the words 'ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father'. It is also outlined in chapter 8 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. It has sometimes been linked theologically as a fulfilment of the Day of Atonement. The theologian William Barclay also pointed out that the Ascension enables the Second Coming. The Ascension has been a subject for paintings and icons and music throughout the centuries.

Ascension Day

Ascension Day in the Church calendar recalls the day of the Ascension of Jesus. Ascension Day is the fortieth day of the Easter season, held 39 days after Easter Sunday, which effectively means it always falls on a Thursday. In 2024, that means it is Thursday 9 May in the western tradition, but Thursday 13 June in the eastern tradition. Generally speaking, the western calendar is used by Catholic and Protestant Christians and the eastern calendar by Orthodox Christians. Ascension Day marks the end of the Easter season, and occurs 10 days before Pentecost.

Ascension Day is marked by Christians across the world in many Christian traditions. For Catholics it is a Holy Day of Obligation, for Orthodox it is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical year, and for Anglicans it is Principal Feast and there may be special services in churches. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer also calls the day Holy Thursday. One symbolic custom in liturgical churches is to extinguish the Paschal candle, which was first lit at Easter, as a symbol of Christ leaving the earth.

Ascension Day is a public holiday in many Catholic and Lutheran countries in Europe such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, some cantons of Switzerland; but not in the UK, Australia nor the USA. In French is it called l'Ascension, and in German it is wonderfully called the Christi Himmelfahrt.

For Christians from evangelical non-conformist churches, not used to mid-week services, Ascension Day often passes by unnoticed, although in many churches it may be recalled on the following Sunday.

The lectionary readings for Ascension Day are Luke 24.44-53 or Acts 1.1-11, Daniel 7.9-14, Psalm 47 or Psalm 93 and Ephesians 1.15-23.