The Fulfilled Salvation of Christ: the Liturgical Spirit of Ascension Thursday
Some words about the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ into Heaven and associated liturgical and Catholic domestic practices.
Through the mystery of the Ascension we, who seemed unworthy of God’s earth, are taken up into Heaven. Our very nature, against which Cherubim guarded the gates of Paradise, is enthroned today high above all Cherubim.
Such are the words of St. John Chrysostom which plunge us directly into the mystery of Ascension Thursday. “Christ was lifted up to Heaven to make us sharers of His divinity.”
Spirit of the Feast
Dr. Pius Parsch, in The Church’s Year of Grace, explains thus the meaning of Christ’s Ascension:
At the death of a beloved friend, we are filled with sorrow even though we know that his lot has been bettered. With this in mind we might expect the Church to commemorate her Savior’s ascension with at least some expression of sadness. Nothing can be further from the truth. Today Christ triumphs, and is receiving the reward of his well earned merit. He patiently paid the price of our redemption, because He sought to free us from Satan’s power and effect our return home. This work, the object of His love and His life’s blood is now completed. He returns to heaven as a conqueror; Son stands before Father and tells of His mission completed. We can characterize today’s feast as that of Christ’s heavenly enthronement, His coronation as King over heaven and earth.
This spirit is perfectly reflected in the hymn of Laud Salutis humanae Sator:
Hail, Thou who man’s Redeemer art,
Jesus, the joy of every heart,
Great Maker of the world’s wide frame
And purest love’s delight and flame! Our guide, our way to heavenly rest,
Be Thou the aim of every breast;
Be Thou the soother of our tears,
Our sweet reward above the spheres. Amen.
Other names for this feast
The various words used by different regions exemplify the richness of this season. The Germans use the term Himmelfahrt (going up to Heaven). The Hungarians have a popular term “Thursday of the Communicants”, because it was the traditional day of the annual Easter Communion. Most interesting is the Byzantine name, “Fulfilled Salvation”, which St. Gregory of Nyssa explains thus: “The Ascension of Christ is the consummation and fulfillment of all other feasts and the happy conclusion of the earthly sojourn of Jesus Christ.”
In Rome, the following Sunday is called “Sunday of the Rose”, because then, the pope celebrates Mass at the church of Santa Maria Rotonda (the Pantheon, which predates the Christian era), and, in token of the Lord’s promise to send the Paraclete soon, a shower of roses is thrown from the central opening of the church.
Procession and folklore
From the beginning of its observance, this feast produced a liturgical procession which went outside the city, and usually to the top of a hill, in imitation of Christ’s leading the Apostles “out towards Bethany” (Lk 24:50). In Jerusalem, of course, it was the original path that Christ took to the summit of the Mount of Olives. In Rome, the pope was crowned by the cardinals in his chapel and in solemn procession conducted to the church of the Lateran. From there, after the Pontifical Mass, the procession went to a shrine outside the walls.
Ascension Plays became a generalized custom in Central and Western Europe. They enacted the Ascension by hoisting a statue of the Risen Christ aloft until it disappeared through an opening in the ceiling of the church. While the image, suspended on a rope, moved slowly upward, the people rose in the pews and stretched out their arms toward the figure of the Savior, acclaiming the Lord in prayer by singing a hymn such as “Ascendit Deus in altum, Alleluia” (“God rose on high”).
Also, it was a widespread custom during the Middle Ages to eat a bird on Ascension Day, because Christ “flew” to Heaven. Pigeons, pheasants, partridges, and even crows, graced the dinner tables. In western Germany bakers gave their customers pieces of pastry made in the shapes of various birds. In England the feast was celebrated with games, dancing and horse races. In Central Europe, it is a traditional day of mountain climbing and picnics on hilltops and high places.