Ascension Day, also known as the Feast of the Ascension is a Christian observance that takes place on the fortieth day of Easter, a Thursday. It celebrates Jesus's ascension into heaven. Ascension Day is not a public holiday, so businesses and schools remain open.
Ascension Day is one of the Catholic Church's six Holy Days of Obligation, these are days when the congregation is expected to attend mass. Since it can be difficult for some people to attend church on a Thursday some Churches in America have sought permission from the Pope to observe Ascension Day mass on the following Sunday. This change gives more believers a chance to participate in services.
According to the bible, after his crucifixion on Good Friday, Jesus was resurrected from the dead on the third day, the date we now call Easter Sunday. For 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples a number of times, teaching them how to spread the word of God and convert people to Christianity. At the end of the fortieth day, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus spoke to his disciples, telling them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, and then he ascended into heaven.
"After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight"
The Bible: The Book of Acts; Chapter 1, Verse 9.
Origins of the celebration
This celebration is believed to be one of the oldest in the Christian faith. Some records state that it was observed as early as the 4th century, although it is thought that the Ascension was celebrated with Easter or Pentecost around that time. At some point, later a decree was made to declare that each of these Holy days should be observed in its own time, thus Ascension Day was moved to be commemorated 40 days after Easter, and Pentecost was to be observed 50 days after Easter.
How it is observed
In the United States, church services are centered around reflection and inner peace. Music is significant in Ascension Day services, and special Ascension Day hymns are sung during mass. Some churches gather socially and celebrate the day with a picnic, sometimes on a hilltop to recreate the moment Jesus was on the Mount of Olives.
Liturgically some churches define ascension day as the official end of Easter time which began with Holy Week, and as the beginning of Pentecost.
Churches might celebrate Ascension Day with a parade/procession through the town. One very old example of this is in Bruges, Belgium, where there has been an Ascension Day Procession called 'Procession of the Holy Blood' every year for over 700 years.