Ascension Day, or Holy Thursday, is celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday in honour of the ascension of Christ into heaven forty days after his resurrection. It is one of the oldest festivals of the Church. St. Augustine says that in his day it had been kept from ‘time immemorial’, and he attributes its institution to the apostles.
In scripture, periods of time involving forty are seasons of preparation for some new or fuller expression of divine intent. Noah, Moses, the Children of Israel, Elijah and Jesus were all prepared for the stretching demands of God’s desire by forty days or forty years of testing and being made ready Christ’s forty day sojourn with the apostolic community after the resurrection was such a season.
In the Anglican Church it is the only weekday, save Christmas, for which there is provided a special preface to the Eucharist. On this day, or on one of the three days preceding (known as Rogation days), was performed the old English custom of beating the bounds.
The word “Rogation” comes from the Latin verb rogare, meaning “to ask,” and was applied to this time of the liturgical year because the Gospel reading for the previous Sunday included the passage “Ask and ye shall receive” (John 16:24). The Sunday itself was often called Rogation Sunday as a result.
The Ascension is in some ways a cruel event. For a period of forty days after the resurrection the Apostles and the community of faithful followers enjoyed the assuring and strengthening presence of the risen Christ. He appeared to them, ate with them, instructed them, and in large measure healed the terrible memory of his crucifixion and the awful emptiness of the three days that followed. It was a time for the Apostles to be drawn more deeply into Christ’s risen life with all its risks, demands and unimaginable possibility. It was a time in which they experienced over and over again that burning of heart which the disciples on the road to Emmaus experienced when the risen One opened the scriptures and made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Here we are faced with a paradox: What the Apostles perceived as Jesus leaving them once again, this time not by way of the cross but by way of ascension, was in fact a prelude to a deeper, fuller and more substantial knowing of the risen One mediated by the Holy Spirit.
The ascension spells the end of the Apostles’ knowing Christ as a physical presence, someone that they can “touch and handle.” It leaves them on the threshold of a new kind of knowing in which Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life is known inwardly and with such force that they would, in time, be able with St. Paul to cry out, “The life I now live is not my own, but the life Christ lives in me.”
Text adapted from The Episcopal Church (text no longer available), Wikipedia
Image from Biblia Vivida (no longer active)