Today we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord which commemorates the events described in Acts 1:1-12. Forty days after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, He ascended before their very eyes into the heavens. Very early on in church history the Christians celebrated the Ascension as one feast together with Pentecost as part of the closure to the Paschal feast. Though our minds are shaped by a ‘historical’ reading of Scriptures and a liturgical calendar which somewhat follows the events in Christ’s life as they might have happened historically, the early Christians did not concern themselves with keeping the Ascension 40 days after Pascha, but celebrated it together with Pentecost. Eventually the Christians embraced or ‘invented’ the historical way of keeping events in Christ’s life and thus was born a separate Feast of the Ascension forty days after Pascha and a calendar year of liturgical celebrations. Archimandrite Job Getcha writes in his book about the Church’s liturgical life and development says:
“Indeed, in the early centuries, the entire fifty-day paschal period was a time of rejoicing in the resurrection of Christ, during which fasting and kneeling were suppressed. The integrity of this period was fractured, out of concern for historicity, by the introduction of the feast of Ascension on the fortieth day. (footnote: “Epiphanius of Salamis… writes: …during the 50-day Pentecost, during which we do not bend the knee or fast…”) . . . As we have already seen, the fiftieth day after Pascha, at least in Jerusalem, originally marked the completion of the paschal season, as Egeria witnesses in her description of the feast of Ascension-Pentecost… By the first half of the fifth century, however, the Armenian Lectionary already indicates two distinct feasts.” (THE TYPIKON DECODED, pp 263, 275)
How the feast has been kept has changed over time, but its significance as an event in the salvation of the humankind has been recognized and honored by Christians through the centuries.
St. Thalassios the Libyan (7th Century) writes:
“God, who gave being to all that is, at the same time united all things together in His providence. Being Master, He became a servant, and so revealed to the world the depths of His providence. God the Logos, in becoming incarnate while remaining unchanged, was united through His flesh with the whole of creation. There is a new wonder in heaven and on earth: God is on earth and man is in heaven. He united men and angels so as to bestow deification on all creation.” (The Philokalia: Volume Two, pg. 312)
Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow (d. 1867) writes:
“The effect that Christ’s Ascension had on the Apostles, according to the testimony of the evangelist Luke, may seem surprising: ‘They returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy.’ We might have expected them to be dismayed at their separation from their Master and Savior, yet they are full of joy… Why is this? They rejoice because now their faith is made perfect and their minds are open to the understanding of the mysteries of Christ. They believe, and they know that as Christ, by His Resurrection, broke the gates of hell and led the faithful out, so, by His Ascension, He opens the gates of Heaven and leads the faithful in.” (Michael Quenot, THE RESURRECTION AND THE ICON, p 189)