The Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ

The “Rogation Days” that historically followed the Sixth Sunday of Easter, that is, the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday immediately preceding the Feast of the Ascension, were days of asking God to bless the fields and grant a fruitful harvest. The practice may have begun with occasions of natural calamity and poor harvests, but the active exercise of prayer in reliance on the Lord is always appropriate. The agricultural focus also offers a nice parallel to the mission of the Church in sowing the Gospel among the nations, as in St. Matthew 9:37–38, Psalm 67, and Luther’s “May God Bestow on us His Grace” (LSB 823). In either case, it is in the confidence of Christ Jesus, whose crucified and risen body is the Firstfruits of the New Creation (1 Cor. 15:20–23, Col. 1:15–18), that we call upon the Lord for the fields and the harvest (St. John 12:24).

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord on the Fortieth Day of Easter is certainly a high point and a transition within the course of the Season. It celebrates the exalting of our human nature to the right hand of God in the glorified Body of Christ Jesus, as well as His rule over the Church of all times and in all places, especially through the Ministry of His Gospel, as indicated in the Epistle appointed for this festival day in the three-year lectionary (Ephesians 1:15–23). The Ascension is not His departure or goodbye, but a profound transition in the way that Christ is in and with His Church. Exalted in glory, He ever lives to intercede for His people as our merciful and great High Priest (Heb. 4:14–16; 7:25, Rom. 8:34), even as He serves us by the preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments within the Temple of His Church on earth.

Although the Feast of the Ascension is sometimes transferred to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, it is certainly preferable to celebrate this Feast on the Fortieth Day of the Season. To do so not only preserves the integrity of this Feast in its own right, but it also then allows the Seventh Sunday of Easter to retain its unique character and liturgical significance between the Ascension of our Lord and His outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.

In the one-year lectionary, the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Exaudi) anticipates the coming of the Holy Spirit with the Word and promise of Jesus concerning “the Helper,” the “Spirit of Truth,” whom He would send from the Father in due season (St. John 15:26). The three-year series takes a different approach, proclaiming a portion of the Lord’s High Priestly Prayer (from St. John 17) on this Sunday each year. Whereas the one-year series highlights the ongoing work of Jesus in the ministry and witness of His Apostles (St. John 15:27), the three-year series highlights the ongoing Priesthood of Christ Jesus, who ever lives to intercede for us before the throne of God (Heb. 4:14–16; 7:25, Rom. 8:34). In this way, the Seventh Sunday of Easter in the three-year series is something of a “High Priest Sunday,” analogous to “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Until the fourth century, it appears that the Ascension of Our Lord and the sending of the Holy Spirit were commemorated and celebrated together on the Fiftieth Day of Easter (Pentecost). As the Ascension came to be remembered on the Fortieth Day (Acts 1:3–9), the outpouring of the Holy Spirit became the sole focus of Pentecost Day. Regrettably, separating the Ascension from Pentecost Day tended to result in the premature ending of Eastertide and disrupted the unity of the great Fifty Days. Against this tendency, it is helpful to recall that the Feast of Pentecost is, properly speaking, the crescendo of the Paschal Feast.