I’ve titled this article “Why Do We Celebrate the Ascension ‘Today’? but even the title needs a short explanation. I put “today” in single quote marks because not everyone is celebrating the Ascension today. Some dioceses move it to the following Sunday. I’ll explain why it falls on today later in the article. In the northeast, we celebrate the Ascension today and that is the perspective I write from.
The Ascension is a holy day of obligation. One might ask why? What makes it so important? Why celebrate it at all, let alone on Sunday or especially Thursday?
We can turn to today’s first reading (Acts 1:1-11) for the answer. The first line begins “In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up.” The writer of the Acts of the Apostles is Luke, the same Luke that wrote the Gospel of Luke. It is this gospel that he refers to as “the first book” as he begins the book of The Acts of the Apostles.
We can take a further step back in time to see Old Testament as everything that happened up to the time just before Jesus’ birth. Then, the gospels tell everything that happened while Jesus walked on Earth including right after his resurrection. It is important to note that the Gospels do not end at the Crucifixion or Resurrection. They end just as Jesus returns to his place in Heaven where he sits at the right hand of the Father. This is the Ascension.
So, the Ascension is a pivotal point in our history. The Acts of the Apostles begin the story of everything that happened after the Ascension but the first eleven verses focus on the Ascension itself. Jesus did not simply disappear. He “ascended” with his disciples watching so that they (and we) would know where he went. They saw him ascend as the “cloud took him from their sight.” It is important to know that Jesus returned to where he came from.
So back to the question why today? Why celebrate this day on a Thursday when it is easier for people to get to church on Sunday? The answer is found in Acts 1:3 when it sets the stage for Jesus’ Ascension, “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during FORTY DAYS.” It makes it clear that Jesus ascended forty days after he first appeared on Easter morning. Forty days was no a random time interval. Jesus spent forty days in the desert after his baptism and was tempted by the devil. It rained for forty days and nights in the great flood (Genesis chapters 6-9).
Today is forty days from Easter and so today we celebrate the Ascension.