What is Ascension Day?

Ascension Day, also called Holy Thursday or Ascension Thursday, is a European holiday occurring on a Thursday in May or June. Though it is a civic holiday in much of Europe, it is also commemorated across much of the world. Here we look at where this day comes from. We also delve deeper into how a telltale trait of Ascension Day shows its Divine signature. Beyond just a holiday this day reminds us of God’s Plan for your life.

Historic Basis for Ascension Day

Ascension Day comes from the Bible. This is the day when Jesus ascended into heaven. The account in Acts of the Bible explains about Jesus that:

After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Acts 1: 3 – 11
Jesus ascends to heaven
Distant Shores Media/Sweet PublishingCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ascension Day in the Calendar

In the Bible account, Jesus appeared to his disciples for 40 days after his resurrection. On the 40th day, he ascended to heaven before their very eyes. This explains why Ascension Day always comes 40 days after Easter Sunday. Because Easter moves around in our modern calendar, Ascension Day will likewise move around year by year.

The Pattern of Remarkable Scheduling of Days

Now a day, Many interpret this idea that Jesus ascended into heaven as simply out-dated superstition that has become part of Christianity’s fabric. In some countries it gives you a well-earned holiday, but beyond that Ascension Day offers little to a modern person.

The blood of sacrificed animals displayed so the angel of death will pass over the home
Distant Shores Media/Sweet PublishingCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But before we dismiss Ascension Day in this way, let’s reflect on the detail that this occurred 40 days after the resurrection. This detail seems trivial enough, but if we look closer at Jesus’ significant days a striking pattern emerges. All the days of his Passion exactly match with significant festival days in the Old Testament. It demonstrates a coordination between events separated by hundreds, even thousands, of years.

For example, Jesus’ crucifixion occurred exactly on the Jewish Passover. This was the day that 1500 years before Jews had sacrificed lambs so death could pass over. On that very same day Jesus was sacrificed so death can pass over us. His resurrection occurred on First Fruits. This was the day that Jews celebrated new life, anticipating more life to come. On that very same day Jesus rose from the dead, allowing us to anticipate our own resurrections.

40 Days

When Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, he stayed on the mountain for 40 Days. As Israel’s prophet he witnessed God’s presence and commands for 40 days. Jesus showed himself to his disciples for 40 days so that they could witness his presence and commands for 40 days. In patterning himself after Moses he was pointing to an ancient prophecy. God had promised Moses 1500 years beforehand that:

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.

Deuteronomy 18: 18-19
Jesus and Moses Relationship in Historical Timeline

God had promised to send a prophet like Moses with the very words of God in his mouth. In patterning after Moses for 40 days he called attention to this prophecy. He fulfilled it by teaching, speaking to disease, and to nature itself, with God’s ‘words in his mouth’. In fact, Jesus in remarkably supernatural ways, linked himself to his Jewish nation.

We do not typically think of Jesus as a ‘prophet’ as the prophecy declared. Jesus carried several roles and titles. He was the Christ, the Son of God, Son of Man, and Lamb of God – all defined in the Old Testament. But in addition to these he was also a prophet.

“What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.

Luke 24:19

50 Days

Ten Days after Ascension day, thus 50 days after his Easter resurrection, Pentecost came. On this day 1500 years before Moses had received the Ten Commandments. These are commandments that no one can keep on their own. But 10 days after his ascension, the Holy Spirit came on that Pentecost Day. He came to empower people so that they could follow those commandments.

Moses with the Ten Commandment tablets
Anton Losenko, PD-US-expired, via Wikimedia Commons

The Pattern

The fact that Jesus’ days coordinated so precisely to so many Festivals established hundreds of years beforehand, reveals a mind. Only a mind can have intention to coordinate like that. But this mind must be able to span hundreds of years, which no human mind can do. Thus, in this way God reveals to us both his Mind and also his Plan. It centered on the person and work of Jesus.

Ascend… Implies Descend

The fact that Jesus ascended implies that he will descend, or return. In fact this theme recurs throughout the Gospel – that he will return. Jesus gave signs of his return and now in our day we can see some of these occurring before our very eyes.

But in his Ascension Day discourse he explained that the disciples would first begin a witness of him that would reach ‘to the ends of the earth’. We now live in the day when this is literally happening.

Be Prepared

When Jesus taught about his return he warned that many would not be ready. They would be unprepared. Take this Ascension Day to become a little more informed so it does not catch you unaware. You can do so by