Ascension Day


The church affirms its belief in, and the importance of, the Ascension of Our Lord in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds; in the Episcopal Church more specifically, in Eucharistic Prayers I, II, A, and D; in the Great Litany and Litany at the Time of Death; and in the Consecration of a Priest. Ascension Day – the Thursday forty days after Easter – is one of seven Principal Feasts in the Episcopal Church, and one of a few occasions that attracts the remnant of an Octave, though it is no longer set apart under the heading ‘Ascensiontide’.* As St Augustine of Hippo said, ‘The Ascension of the Lord is the seal of the Catholic Faith, which assureth in us the hope of the gift which is yet to come to us, from a miracle whereof we already feel the fruits.’

The Evangelists’ accounts put into vivid, physical terms what is affirmed and explored in the magnificent Epistle to the Ephesians –

When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people; [Ps 68.18] God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all;

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ...and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus

– and throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The Ascension marks the completion – for now – of Christ’s work on earth. We give thanks for the Word’s sojourn among us and celebrate the Son’s return to his rightful place to reign at the right hand of the Father: the kingship Psalms figure prominently in the liturgies of the season. Christ enters heaven as a triumphant hero, having freed us from sin and death.

But that is not all: Christ has not only ascended to the Father, but has done so precisely as a man. Not only was flesh deemed worthy for the Word to put on at his Incarnation; it was deemed worthy not to be cast off upon the Son’s return to heaven but rather, redeemed and transformed, to be taken to the very Throne of God (cf. the 1979 Prayer Book Catechism and the IV. Article of Religion†).

A beloved hymn, ‘At the Name of Jesus’, written as a processional hymn for Ascension Day (though often, and fittingly, sung on the feasts of the Holy Name and Christ the King) echoes St Leo the Great’s [Pope Leo I] Homilies on this point:

Humbled for a season, to receive a name
From the lips of sinners unto whom He came,
Faithfully He bore it, spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious when from death He passed.

Bore it up triumphant with its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures, to the central height,
To the throne of Godhead, to the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory of that perfect rest.

     Caroline M. Noel

And, in all verity, it was a great and unspeakable cause for joy to see the Manhood, in the presence of that holy multitude of believers, exalted above all creatures even heavenly, rising above the ranks of the angelic armies, and speeding its glorious way to where the most noble of the Archangels lie far behind, to rest no lower than that place where high above all principality and power, it taketh its seat at the right hand of the eternal Father, sharer of his throne, and partaker of his glory, and still of the very man’s nature which the Son hath taken upon him.
     from St Leo the Great’s I. Homily on the Ascension
    (V. Lesson, Matins of Ascension Day)

We call to mind and justly celebrate that day whereon our lowly nature was, in the Person of Christ, borne up high above all the heavenly armies, above all the circles of Angels, beyond the heights of all the Powers, even to where Christ is sitting on the right hand of the Father.
     from St Leo the Great’s II. Homily on the Ascension
    (V. Lesson, Friday after Ascension Day)

An Office hymn, ‘Aeterne rex altissime’, traditionally appointed for Ascensiontide celebrates Christ not only as a victorious king but notes that even the angels wondered at ‘how changed is our humanity’ (‘Tremunt videntes angeli / versam vicem mortalium’) – for Christ, the ‘first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’, shows us what those who have been joined to him will be like in God’s restored kingdom (cf. I John 3). Indeed, one line of commentary (e.g. St Gregory of Nyssa) suggests that the angels did not recognize the Son on his return – ‘who is this King of glory?’, as Ps 24 says.

And so the redeemed and perfected creation of which Christ is the first fruits becomes part of heaven itself, and those who are members of Christ’s Body have ascended with him. St Leo again: 

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us also rejoice with worthy joy, for the Ascension of Christ is exaltation for us, and whither the glory of the Head of the Church is passed in, thither is the hope of the body of the Church called on to follow...This day is not only the possession of Paradise made sure unto us, but in the Person of our Head we are actually begun to enter into the heavenly mansions above.
     St Leo the Great’s I. Homily on the Ascension

And yet, from our limited perspective, all of this is incomplete; we have only seen the first buds of the spring. Indeed, Our Lord himself affirms throughout his farewell discourse (Chapters 14–17 of the Gospel of St John, delivered to his disciples at table – and that, of course, includes us) that he must depart so that these gifts may come; the Teacher must leave the students to grow to maturity; the presence discernible by the senses must yield to that perceptible only by faith for the increase thereof; the Son’s power, for a while concentrated entirely in his single human body, will now be dispersed among his new Body, the Church, via the Spirit. One of the Collects for the day sums up this truth thus, also echoing the passage from Ephesians:

O Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things...
     I. Collect for Ascension Day,
     originally from the Leonine Sacramentary

In Ascensiontide, then, in company with the first disciples, the Church awaits the coming of the Spirit, praying for the outpouring of the gifts which the Apostle describes in Ep 4 as the direct corollary of Christ’s Ascension (echoed in the Consecration of a Priest‡), by means of which to grow into the ‘full stature of Christ’, ‘for building up the Body of Christ’. Ascensiontide was thus traditionally a season of vigilance (indeed, this period was the original novena – nine days of prayer) – no weddings were celebrated during the period, for example, and the Lessons at traditional Matins, not only from the Epistles mentioned above but also from I John and I Peter, have much to do not only with the dazzling and heady aspects of ‘what we shall be like’ but with the cultivation of the thoughts, attitudes, and actions by which, by the grace of God, we may grow into that likeness and the Kingdom come to full flower.

Thus many of the Church’s Collects in one form or another ask for grace to ‘seek the things that are above’ –

...that our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found
     Lent V

...that by thy inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same
     Proper V

Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly...
     Proper XX

– and at every celebration of the Eucharist, the Celebrant exhorts us to ‘lift up our hearts’.

The II. Collect for Ascension Day:

Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.
     Gregorian Sacramentary via the Sarum Missal;
     translated for bcp1549

The Collect for the Sunday after Ascension Day:

O God, the King of glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Savior Christ is gone before; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.
     derived for bcp1549
     from the Antiphon to the Magnificat
     at II. Vespers of the Ascension

*  Over the centuries many of the Church’s feasts came to be celebrated with an octave: that is, a week-long (thus, eight-day, thus the word ‘octave’) observance. The calendar got so cluttered with them that most octaves were eventually suppressed in the reformations of the sixteenth and twentieth centuries; the only true octave in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (not known under that name) is Easter Week. Several other feasts and fasts, however, including Christmas, the Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, and Ascension Day, have remnants of octaves, during which the Collect, Lessons, and Preface of the feast are used at Mass on weekdays following, at least until the next Sunday. This is why the VII. Sunday of Easter has the particular subtitle ‘The Sunday after Ascension Day’. (bcp1928 had full octaves of Christmas, the Epiphany, Ascension, and Pentecost, and had seasons of Ascensiontide, pre-Lent, Passiontide, and Whitsuntide, all of which disappeared in 1979.) These octaves may be observed, however, at the Office by the use of appropriate opening sentences, Office hymns, antiphons, and collect; and at Mass by the proper chants.

†  q What do we mean when we say that he ascended into heaven
     and is seated at the right hand of the Father?

a We mean that Jesus took our human nature into heaven
     where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us.

          Catechism, bcp 850

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth... 
     Article IV, bcp 868

Thou hast raised our human nature
on the clouds to God’s right hand:
there we sit in heavenly places,
there with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
we by faith behold our own.

     ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’ [Hymn 215]
     Christopher Wordsworth, Bishop of Lincoln

‡     We thank you that by his death he has overcome death, and, having ascended into heaven, has poured his gifts abundantly upon your people, making some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry and the building up of his body.
     bcp 533