Ascension Day: An Ancient Feast

James Melchiorre

The Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, also known as Ascension Thursday or Ascension Day, is one of the great solemnities in the Christian liturgical calendar, commemorating the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Eastertide, and nine days before the Day of Pentecost.

Scripture includes at least two references to the event commemorated on Ascension Day, one of them is found in the Gospel According to Luke in chapter 24, the other is in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, two books of the Bible believed to be written by the same author.

Tradition designates Mount Olivet near Bethany as the place where Jesus ascended into heaven. There is no documentation of Ascension Day before the fifth century, but some of the writings of St. Augustine indicate that the observance is older, perhaps dating back to the time of the apostles. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Feast of the Ascension remains a Holy Day of Obligation to hear Mass and in certain European countries---Austria and Belgium---it’s a public holiday.

Trinity Church Wall Street celebrates the Feast of the Ascension this year on May 30 with Holy Eucharist at 12:05 pm in the Chapel of All Saints and at 5:30 pm in St. Paul’s Chapel. The feast day is particularly significant to Trinity because the third and current church building, considered the masterpiece of architect Richard Upjohn, officially opened on Ascension Day 1846, which fell on May 21 that year.

It’s a tradition for the members of the Trinity Vestry to attend the Ascension Day Eucharist dressed in green robes with red trim, clothing that dates from the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Trinity in 1976.

For the past two years, the Trinity community has not been able to celebrate Ascension Day inside the Trinity Church nave because of the rejuvenation project, but plans to return in the spring of 2020 when Ascension Day falls on Thursday, May 21, exactly as it did in 1846, on what will be the 174th birthday of the building.