Catholic Activity: Ascension Liturgy and Customs
Father Francis Weiser explains the origin, liturgy, and folk customs of the feast of the Ascension.
HISTORY AND LITURGY
On Thursday of the sixth week after Easter (forty days after Easter Sunday), the Church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension. According to the Bible, on that day the Lord commissioned His Apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations; then, having blessed them, "He was lifted up before their eyes, and a cloud took him out of their sight" (Acts 1, 9).
ORIGIN — The feast is of very ancient origin. As a mere commemoration of the event it certainly dates from apostolic times, since the Bible expressly mentions the day and its happenings. However, it seems that the Ascension was not celebrated as a separate festival in the liturgy of the Church during the first three centuries, but was included in the Feast of Pentecost.1 The first one to mention it as an established and separate feast is Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia (341).2 At the end of the fourth century it was universally celebrated in the whole Roman Empire. Saint Augustine (430) attributed its origin to the Apostles themselves, probably because by his time it already was of such high traditional standing that it ranked with the greatest liturgical celebrations. He mentions as "solemn anniversaries" of the Lord the "passion, resurrection and ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit."3 In the Greek Church, Saint Gregory of Nyssa (394) and Saint John Chrysostom (407) preached sermons on Ascension Day, which proves that at the end of the fourth century the feast was well established in the East, too.4 From those early centuries the festival has remained a holyday of obligation up to this day.5
VIGIL — Ascension Day did not receive a vigil celebration until well into the seventh century, when it was first mentioned in some Roman lists of holydays.6 The reason for this delay was the fact that a penitential observance like the vigil was actually out of harmony with the festive season of joy between Easter and Pentecost, which did not admit of fasting and penitential exercises in the ancient Church. In the ninth century this vigil celebration came from Rome to the Frankish empire and was thus established as a universal custom in the liturgy of the Latin Church.7 The Greek Church has never observed a vigil of Ascension.8
The vigil Mass clearly betrays its late origin. If the vigil had been in existence at the time of Saint Gregory I (604), that great pope would have given it a liturgy of its own. As it is, the Mass text shows no originality; it is borrowed from the preceding Sunday (with the exception of Epistle and Gospel).9
The law of vigil fast was gradually rescinded during the past centuries. The new Code of Canon Law does not list the vigil of Ascension among the fast days of obligation.10
CELEBRATION OF THE FEAST — As with the other feasts of the Lord, the early Church celebrated not so much the memory of the historical event of Christ's ascension, but its theological significance. Saint John Chrysostom expressed it in these words:
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.11
A similar thought is expressed in the words of the festive Preface in the Mass: "Christ was lifted up to Heaven to make us sharers in His divinity."12
Perhaps the same theological aspect, in preference to the merely historical one, explains the interesting fact that in Jerusalem the earliest celebration of Ascension Day (in the fourth century) was not held on the Mount of Olives (although Saint Helena had built a splendid basilica there), but in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, as if the end of Christ's visible presence on earth would have to be honored in the very place of its beginning.13 By the eight century, however, the Ascension feast in Jerusalem was solemnly kept on the Mount of Olives.14
PROCESSION — From the very beginning of its observance as a separate festival, the Ascension had a distinctive feature in the 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" (Luke 24, 50).15 In Jerusalem it was, of course, the original path that Christ took to the summit of the Mount of Olives. In Constantinople the suburb of Romanesia, where Saint John Chrysostom had preached his sermons on the Ascension, was chosen.16 In Rome, the pope was crowned by the cardinals in his chapel after the morning service, and in solemn procession conducted to the church of the Lateran. From there, after the Pontifical Mass, toward noon, the procession went to a shrine or church outside the walls. The Epistle of the Ascension was read and a prayer service held.17
This custom of the procession was introduced as a fairly universal rite in the Latin Church during the eighth and ninth centuries, but finally was replaced by the non-liturgical pageants of the High Middle Ages. The only relic still extant in our present liturgy is the simple but impressive ceremony in every Catholic church, after the Gospel of the Mass has been sung, of extinguishing the Easter candle. In some sections of Germany and central Europe, however, semi-liturgical processions are still held after the High Mass. Preceded by candles and cross, the faithful walk with prayer and song through fields and pastures, and the priest blesses each lot of ground.18
ASCENSION WEEK — The Feast of the Ascension received an octave only in the fifteenth century.19 Before that time, the Sunday after the Ascension was called in the Roman books "Sunday of the Rose" (Dominica de Rosa). On that Sunday the popes preached and held the solemn service at the church of Santa Maria Rotonda (the Pantheon), and, in token of the Lord's promise that He would send the Paraclete soon, a shower of roses was thrown from the central opening of the church immediately after the pope's sermon.20
Even today, the Mass of Sunday is mainly devoted to the thought of the coming Feast of Pentecost. In the Epistle, Saint Peter describes the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit, the virtue of charity (1 Peter 4, 7-11); and, in the Gospel, Christ promises to send the Paraclete (John 15, 26-16, 4).
In the Greek Church this Sunday forms the Feast of the Three Hundred and Eighteen Holy and Godly Fathers of Nicaea. It is a solemn commemoration of the great council of 325 in which the Arian heresy was condemned and Mary's title as "Mother of God" was unanimously confirmed.21
Some hermits and ascetics in the early centuries claimed (against the general practice of the Church) that from Ascension Day on they could and should return to their penitential exercises and fasts, because Christ was with the apostles for only forty days.22 Thus the Octave of the Ascension was turned by them into a period of fasting and penance. The Council of Elvira (about 303) condemned this claim and insisted on the universal practice of keeping the time of joy (without fast and penance) up to Pentecost.23
NAMES — All Christian nations have accepted the liturgical term of "Ascension" for the feast (Ascensio in Latin, Analepsis in Greek). The German word Himmelfahrt has the same meaning (Going up to Heaven). The Hungarians have a popular term, "Thursday of the Communicants" (Aldozó esütörtök), because in past centuries Ascension was the last day for receiving the annual Easter Communion in that country.24
A second liturgical title is used in the Byzantine Church: "Fulfilled Salvation" (Episozomene in Greek, Spasow in Slavonic).25 This term signifies what Saint Gregory of Nyssa expressed in one of his sermons: "The Ascension of Christ is the consummation and fulfillment of all other feasts and the happy conclusion of the earthly sojourn of Jesus Christ."26
ASCENSION PLAYS — During the tenth century some dramatic details were added to the liturgical procession on Ascension Day in the countries of central and western Europe.27 In Germany it became a custom for priests to lift a cross aloft when the words Assumptus est in coelum (He was taken up into Heaven) were sung at the Gospel.28
From the eleventh century on, the procession was gradually dropped in most countries and in its place a pageant was performed in church. These "Ascension plays" have never been accorded official approval or liturgical status by the Roman authorities.29
By the thirteenth century it had become a fairly general custom to enact the Ascension by hoisting a statue of the Risen Christ aloft until it disappeared through an opening in the ceiling of the church.30 While the image, suspended on a rope, moved slowly upward, the people rose in their pews and stretched out their arms toward the figure of the Saviour, acclaiming the Lord in prayer or by hymn singing. Hundreds of reports in old books from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries contain vivid descriptions of this ancient custom.
One of the most charming examples is the Ascension play of the Bavarian monastery in Moosburg, recorded by the priest and poet Johann von Berghausen (1362).31 In the center of the church, directly underneath an opening in the ceiling, a platform decorated with colored cloths and flowers was erected. On this platform stood a little tent, open at the top, which represented the Mount of Olivet. Inside the tent was placed a statue of the Risen Christ, holding high the banner of victory. A strong rope that hung down from the ceiling was fastened to a ring on top of the wooden image. After Vespers (in the afternoon), a solemn procession moved from the sacristy to the platform. It was led by two boys in white dresses. They impersonated angels; on their shoulders they wore wings and on their heads little wreaths of flowers. They were followed by a young cleric who represented the Blessed Virgin, "dressed in the robes of holy and honorable widowhood." To his right and left walked clerics enacting Saint Peter and Saint John. Behind them came ten other clerics in Oriental gowns; they were barefoot, and on their foreheads they carried diadems inscribed with the names of the Apostles. The altar boys and priests, vested in festive garb, concluded the group. In front of the platform, the deacon sang the Gospel of Ascension Day, and the choir intoned the antiphon, "I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (John 20, 17). The priests then venerated the image of Christ with inclinations and incense. Finally, while the choir sang Ascendit Deus in altum, alleluia (God rose on high), the statue was slowly pulled aloft. As it rose higher and higher, a few figures of angels holding burning candles came down from "Heaven" to meet the Lord and to accompany him on his journey. From a large metal ring that was suspended below the opening, there hung cloths of silk representing clouds. Between these "clouds" the image of the Saviour slowly and solemnly disappeared. A few moments later, a shower of roses, lilies, and other flowers dropped from the opening; then followed wafers in the shape of large hosts. The schoolchildren were allowed to collect these flowers and wafers, to take them home as cherished souvenirs. Father Berghausen explains this custom as follows: "The little ones collect the flowers which symbolize the various gifts of the Holy Spirit. The wafers indicate the presence of Christ in His eucharistic Body, which remains with us, under the species of bread, to the end of time." While the congregation stood with eyes raised to the ceiling, the two "angels" intoned the final message of Ascension Day, which predicts the triumphant coming of the Lord on the clouds of Heaven, for the great judgment at the end of the world: "Why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, shall come in the same way as you have seen him going up to heaven" (Acts 1, 11). The celebration was concluded with solemn Benediction.32
The Lutheran reformers violently attacked not only occasional abuses in these plays, but the whole institution. However, Luther himself seems to have later regretted the hasty condemnations of earlier years, for in a message to his preachers he wrote in 1530: "If such customs had remained as pageants for the sake of youth and school children, to furnish them with a presentation of Christian doctrine and Christian life, then it could well be allowed that Palm donkeys, Ascension plays, and many similar traditions might be admitted and tolerated; for by such things conscience is not led into confusion."33
OTHER CUSTOMS — It was a widespread custom in many parts of Europe 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.34 In western Germany bakers and innkeepers 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, Ascension Day is a traditional day of mountain climbing and picnics on hilltops and high places.35
Popular superstitions threaten dire punishments to anyone who works on Ascension Day in field and garden, but especially to women who do their sewing on the feast. Any piece of garment that has been touched by a needle on the Ascension will attract lightning before long, and many stories are told of how people were killed that way. In some sections of Europe it is said that weddings should not be held on Ascension Day because one of the partners would die soon. Those who go bathing in rivers and lakes are exposed to the danger of drowning more than on other days. It seems that all these superstitions are relics of the pre-Christian lore of the demons of death who were said to roam the earth and kill people around this time of the year.36
1 Kellner, 106.
2 De Soll. Pasch., 5; PG, 24, 699.
3 Epist. ad Inquis. Januarii, 54, 1; PL, 33, 200.
4 Greg.: In Ascens. Christi; PG, 46, 689; Chrysost.: Hom. in Ascens., 2; PG, 50, 444.
5 CIC, 1247, 1.
6 Schuster, II, 373.
7 TE, I, 662.
8 Nilles, II, 340.
9 See note 6.
10 CIC, 1252, 2.
11 Hom. in Ascens., 2; PG, 50, 414.
12 MR, Praefatio de Ascensione Domini.
13 SSP, 93 f.
14 Adamnan, De Locis Sacris, I, 23, 24; CSEL, 39, 249 ff.
15 Dur., VI, 104, 1.
16 Kellner, 108.
17 Schuster, II, 374.
18 Gugitz, I, 255.
19 TE, I, 662.
20 Schuster II, 378.
21 N. Nilles, Die Concilienfeste der orientalischen Kirche, ZKTh, 6 (1882), 195 ff.
22 Kellner, 109.
23 Can. 43; Mansi, 2, 13.
24 Nilles, II, 369.
25 ZKTh, 17 (1893), 527.
26 In Ascens. Christi; PG, 46, 689.
27 Nilles, II, 370; F. Cabrol, Ascension, DACL, 1.2 (1924), 2934 ff.
28 TE, I, 662, note.
29 E. Krebs, Himmelfahrt Christi, LThK, 5 (1933), 51.
30 A. Molien, Ascension, in Catholicisme, I (1948), 888 f.
31 N. C. Brooks, Das Moosburger Himmelfahrtsspiel, in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum, 50 (1925), 91 ff.
32 See also M. Grass-Cornet, Von Palmeseln und tanzenden Engeln, OiT, 155 ff.
33 Vermahnung an die Geistlichen zu Augsburg, 1530.
34 Geramb, 87.
35 Gugitz, I, 236 ff. (Das Christi-Himmelfahrtsfest).
36 ES, 20; Gugitz, I, 257.
Activity Source: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958