The early Church did not celebrate a particular feast of the Ascension of the Lord. The content of this feast was first very closely associated with the Easter celebration. What probably transpires here are the multiple traditions preserved in the gospels:
- Matthew’s gospel has the disciples encountering Jesus on the mountain in Galilee, where Jesus promises to be with them always. Nothing is said explicitly about 40 days, nor about ascension.
- In Mark, Jesus commissions the Eleven at a later day and then he is taken up into heaven. No number is given and the place remains anonymous.
- Luke has Jesus talking to the disciples the very night of the resurrection and then leading them out to Bethany, where he is taken up to heaven.
- Acts of the Apostles (also authored by Luke) specify 40 days; Jesus is lifted up, taken from their sight, and they return to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet.
- John’s gospel does not speak about Ascension.
The site on Mount of Olives with the Ascension Church built at the traditional place of ascension (very close to Jerusalem) was fully integrated into the liturgical celebration of Easter in Jerusalem. Liturgy used to be celebrated here on the morning of Palm Sunday, in the night between Thursday and Friday during the Holy Week, and on all days of the Easter Week.
The Church of Jerusalem, as well as other Christian communities first used to celebrate the 50th day after Easter – the day of the Pentecost. Only in the 4th century (attested in a homily of bishop John Chrysostom in 386), the celebration of the 40th day after Easter was introduced as the Ascension of Christ (according to Luke’s chronology from the Acts) and this custom gained a general acceptance both in the Eastern, as well as the Western Church in the 5th century.
This might result from an effort to underline the number 40 (which receives a symbolic meaning in the Bible) as well as to match the 40 days of Lenten preparation.
An extra vigil celebration was added to this feast in the 7th century and an octave in the 11th century. The Middle Ages saw an increase of dramatic performances: two altar-servers with swinging thuribles played the role of the angels (Acts 1:10), the statue of Christ was lifted up high, and people were occasionally distributed water, bread, and other foods, perhaps in reference to the expected harvest.
The increase in emphasis on the 40 days also carried negative consequences with it. The match with the 40 days of Lent (subconsciously) implied an end of the Easter period and disconnection from the feast of Pentecost. This perception was reinforced even more by the ceremony of extinguishing the Easter Candle, which was even adopted by the 1570 Missal.
This feast day must not be reduced to a historicizing celebration: it is not a moment when Jesus just says farewell to his disciples, nor is it a simple exaltation of the Lord. Rather, the ascension of Jesus means that something from us, our human nature that he shared with us since his incarnation, is introduced into the heavenly glory.
Current liturgy offers readings from the Acts of the Apostles 1 and apparition stories from the gospels.