Ascension Day


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Ascension Day

Christianity the 40th day after Easter, when the Ascension of Christ into heaven is celebrated

Ascension Day

Holy Thursday

According to a well-known passage from Christian scripture, Jesus ascended to heaven on the fortieth day following the Resurrection (Acts 1:3-11). After this time Jesus no longer appeared to his disciples on earth in human form. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John also record versions of Jesus' final departure, though they furnish fewer and sometimes conflicting details. Among the early Christians the version of Jesus' leave-taking recorded in the Book of Acts became the basis for a Christian festival known as Ascension Day. Falling forty days after Easter Sunday, which places it always on a Thursday, this observance commemorates Jesus' glorious ascent into the skies and the beginning of his heavenly reign. In the Western Church calendar, observed by Roman Catholics and Protestants, Ascension Day can fall anywhere between April 30 and June 3.

In England people sometimes call this festival Holy Thursday. This designation sows some confusion, since many Christians refer to the Thursday of Holy Week by the same name.

History

Early Christian leaders scattered references to the Ascension throughout their writings. One tradition claims that Christians began to commemorate the Ascension very early in their history, in the year 68 A.D. Nevertheless, historical records reveal that Church leaders disagreed as to when the ascension of Jesus Christ had actually taken place. Some argued that the event occurred exactly forty days after the Resurrection, as told in the Book of Acts. Other authorities believed that the phrase "forty days" was merely a figure of speech, meaning "a long time." Some researchers propose that early commemorations of the Ascension may have taken place on Easter Sunday, and point out that the Gospel according to Luke implies that the Resurrection and the Ascension took place on the same day (Luke 24:50-53).

One of the earliest mentions of the feast in any historical document comes from the diary of Egeria, a Christian woman who made a pilgrimage to Palestine in the late fourth century. She described her participation in a joint celebration of Pentecost and the Ascension that took place forty days after Easter. During this era Christians in Jerusalem celebrated the Ascension with a procession to Mount Olivet, the site from which Jesus is supposed to have ascended to heaven. According to Christian tradition, Jesus left footprints in the solid rock that crowns this hill. Early Christian pilgrims journeyed to see these stony footprints. A Christian noblewoman built the Ibomon church at this site sometime in the fourth century.

Historical evidence from the late fourth century confirms that by that time many Christian communities were celebrating the Ascension. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) called the feast "ancient" and "universal." In the year 400, the First Council of Toledo agreed that Christ had indeed ascended to heaven on the fortieth day after the Resurrection. This decision helped to anchor observances of the feast to the fortieth day after Easter, or Thursday of the sixth week of the Easter season.

Ascension Plays

In the Middle Ages Ascension plays, religious dramas representing Christ's miraculous disappearance into the clouds, often accompanied Ascension Day church services. According to one writer, this custom began in Rome with religious processions, led by the pope, in honor of Ascension Day. As Ascension Day processions spread throughout Western Christianity, people began to add dramatic details. This process of embellishment flourished in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries. During that era many congregations concluded their processions by reenacting Christ's ascension. Worshipers sometimes accomplished this feat by tying ropes around a statue of Jesus and hoisting it through a hole in the church roof. A document describing one such fourteenth-century ceremony that took place in a monastery in Bavaria, Germany, furnishes some dramatic details. The writer marvels that as the statue of Jesus ascended towards the roof of the church angels descended to escort the rising Christ into heaven. These angels, played by costumed choir boys suspended from the ceiling by means of ropes, met Christ as he neared the clouds, which were represented by draperies of silk around the opening in the roof. After the statue of Jesus disappeared into the clouds a sudden shower of lilies, roses, other flowers, and communion wafers dropped from the roof to the disciples waiting below (see also Eucharist).

In the Austrian state of Tyrol similar Ascension plays survived until the twentieth century. Many Christian communities still practice related customs. For example, some congregations raise a crucifix to the top of a church steeple on Ascension Day.

Folk Customs

English folklore records a number of unusual Ascension Day customs and superstitions. At Tissington, in Derbyshire, people decorate a local well with flowers, buds, leaves, and other natural materials. They also participate in a well-blessing ceremony. The exact history of the custom is unknown. Some believe it dates back to pagan practices of ancient times, while others claim it began in the mid-fourteenth century as a means of giving thanks to God for sparing the town from the plague. In any case, the annual Ascension Day well dressing at Tissington attracts about 50,000 visitors a year.

Other English Ascension Day customs and superstitions regarding water include the belief that water taken from holy wells on Ascension Day has special healing powers. Ascensiontide rain, which according to folk belief fell straight from heaven, was said to cure sore eyes. According to another old English superstition, the figure of a lamb appears momentarily in the sunrise on Ascension Day. In the north country girls ran smock races on Ascension Day. The girls competed with one another in their smocks, an undergarment similar to a slip. The winner of the race received a new smock. Another old folk custom, the beating of the bounds, occurred on Ascension Day as well as during the Rogation Days (for more on this custom, see Rogation Days).

In Florence, Italy, people collected grasshoppers on Ascension Day and took them home in cages. If the grasshopper sang in the first three days of its captivity the family was assured of good luck, and they let the insect go free. If the grasshopper died their fate was less certain. Hundreds of years ago in the sea-faring city of Venice, Italy, the city's ruler, called the doge, wed the sea on Ascension Day. Each year the doge renewed his, and by extension his city's, wedding vow by throwing a ring into the surf, accompanied by holy water. Today the city of Venice still hosts an impressive Ascension Day festival, during which contemporary Venetians reenact the traditional wedding with the sea (see also Italy, Carnival in).

In a few places in Europe people burn, chase, or dunk the devil in effigy on Ascension Day. This custom represents the defeat that the devil suffered when Christ entered heaven in glory. In Germany Ascension Day is sometimes called "Father's Day" since Protestant men participate in group outings into the countryside on this day. In rural Portugal people gather medicinal plants and herbs on Ascension Day. They also make symbolic bouquets of olive branches, wheat stalks, poppies, and daisies. These bouquets represent their hopes for peace and prosperity. The olive and wheat stand for a bountiful harvest, the poppy symbolizes peace, and the daisy represents money.

Common Ascension Day customs in many European countries include processions into the countryside to eat, drink, and admire nature. Often these processions lead to the tops of hills for picnics or religious services. This practice recalls the account of the Ascension given in chapter one of the Book of Acts, which implies that Jesus led his followers to the top of Mount Olivet before ascending into heaven (Acts 1:12). Another European folk custom that echoes the theme of rising into the skies calls for eating some kind of bird on Ascension Day. Thus European Ascension Day menus may feature pheasants, pigeons, partridges, and even crows. In western Germany bakers prepare bird-shaped pastries in honor of the day. In the United States the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose ancestors immigrated to the United States from Germany and Switzerland, considered Ascension Day and Good Friday to be the holiest days of the year. Accordingly, they attached many superstitions to Ascension Day activities. One such folk belief declared it a fine day on which to cull herbs, teas, and wild flowers. Gathered on this day these leaves and flowers possessed special healing properties. In past times women warned each other not to sew on Ascension Day. Tales of those who had broken this superstition and met dire fates often accompanied these warnings. By contrast, men and boys spoke of Ascension Day as the luckiest day of the year on which to go fishing. This superstition probably evolved from the assumption that the fish, like Jesus Christ, would be sure to rise on this day.

Religious Customs

Before 1970 Roman Catholic clergy removed the Easter candle, or paschal candle, from the sanctuary on Ascension Day. The extinguishing of the paschal candle on this day symbolized the fact that after the Ascension the resurrected Jesus would no longer appear to his disciples on earth clothed in human flesh. The Roman Catholic Church currently specifies that the paschal candle should remain in use through the Feast of Pentecost each year. In 1969 Roman Catholic authorities permitted the transfer of Ascension Thursday services to the following Sunday, that is, to the seventh Sunday of the Easter season.

Ascension Day religious services frequently explore the meaning of Christ's bodily ascent into heaven, its effect on his original disciples, and its significance to today's Christians. They may also focus on Jesus' final instructions and his last pledge to his disciples. In the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus commands them to:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

Further Reading

"Ascension of Christ." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Harper, Howard. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1997. Hole, Christina. Easter and Its Customs. New York: M. Barrows and Company, 1961. James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1993. McBrien, Richard P. "Ascension, Feast of." In his The HarperCollins Encyclo- pedia of Catholicism. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Munoa, Phillip. "Ascension." In David Noel Freedman, ed. Eerdmans Dic- tionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000. National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Holy Days in the United States. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1984. Neyrey, Jerome H. "Ascension." In Richard McBrien, ed. The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. Niemann, Paul J. The Lent, Triduum, and Easter Answer Book. San Jose, CA: Resource Publications, 1998. Quinn, J. D. "Ascension of Jesus Christ." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 1. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Shoemaker, Alfred L. Eastertide in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, PA: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1960. Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.

Web Site

The web site maintained by Tissington Hall, in Tissington, England, describes various aspects of the local well-dressing ceremony at: hall.com/well_dressing.htm

Ascension Day

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: Between April 30 and June 3; forty days after Easter
Where Celebrated: Britain, Europe, United States, and by Roman Catholics and Anglicans around the world
Symbols and Customs: Ascension Plays, Beating the Bounds, Birds, Chasing the Devil, Crickets, Well Dressing, Wheat
Related Holidays: Easter

ORIGINS

Ascension Day is a Christian holiday celebrated by Roman Catholics and Protestants. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

Christians believe that after Jesus Christ was resurrected from the tomb, he spent forty days with his disciples, instructing them on how to carry out his teachings. On the fortieth day, he took them to the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. As they watched, he raised his hands and was carried up to heaven.

Ascension Day has been observed since 68 C . E Although the Bible specifically mentions what happened on the fortieth day after EASTER, the Ascension was not celebrated as a separate festival during the first three centuries following Jesus' birth but was included in the celebration of PENTECOST. By the end of the fourth century, however, it was universally observed throughout the Roman Empire.

From the very beginning, Ascension Day observances included a procession that went outside the city, and usually to the top of a hill, in imitation of Jesus leading the Apostles "out towards Bethany," as described in the Gospel according to Luke. In Jerusalem, the procession followed the path that Christ took to the summit of the Mount of Olives. Although such processions were widespread during the eighth and ninth centuries, they were eventually replaced by the pageants or ASCENSION PLAYS of the Middle Ages. But processions are still held after Mass on Ascension Day in some parts of Germany and central Europe, with worshippers following clergymen carrying candles.

Until 1970, Ascension Day was also the day on which the Paschal candle is extinguished (see EASTER). Since then, Roman Catholic doctrine instructs that the candle remain lit until PENTECOST.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Ascension Plays

From the eleventh century onwards, the processions that usually took place on Ascension Day were replaced by pageants performed in churches. By the thirteenth century, it was common practice to reenact the Ascension by hoisting a statue of Christ aloft until it disappeared through an opening in the church ceiling. As the image moved slowly upward, people rose and stretched out their arms toward the Christ figure. Huge pieces of silk or cloth were sometimes hung from the ceiling to represent clouds, and angels with lighted candles would come down from "heaven" to meet the Lord and accompany him on His journey. A few minutes after he disappeared, a shower of roses, lilies, and other flowers would fall from the opening, symbolizing the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Lutheran reformers attacked these plays for overdramatizing the story of the Ascension. But Martin Luther himself eventually decided that if such pageants were staged primarily as a way to teach schoolchildren about the life of Christ, they were permissible.

Beating the Bounds

The three days preceding Ascension Day, which always falls on a Thursday, were known in the Church of England as the ROGATION DAYS (from the Latin rogare, meaning "to pray" or "to ask"). The name refers to the ancient practice of having clergymen and members of the congregation walk around the boundaries of the parish and ask God's blessing on the fruits of the earth. Since maps were rare in those days, "beating the bounds" served a practical purpose as well: Greedy landlords often stole a corner of someone's property or made use of part of a neighbor's field without anyone noticing. At certain points in the procession, the people would stop. The clergyman would point out an example of God's goodness and lead them in singing a hymn of thanksgiving.

If a fence had been put up since the previous year, the processioners might take it down; if a canal had been cut across the boundary, someone had to strip off his clothes and dive in; if a house had been built on the boundary, the processioners would go in through a back door and out through a window. High walls had to be climbed, rivers and streams had to be crossed, and at the corners or boundarycrosses, small boys were whipped or bumped head downwards to help them remember the places better. The beating of young boys with willow switches was also a symbolic act designed to purify their souls.

The whole point of the Rogationtide ritual was to impress upon the younger generation the importance of keeping track of boundaries. It may have been a continuation of the ancient Roman festival known as the TERMINALIA (February 23), held in honor of Terminus, the god of boundary stones. Another theory is that it was a Christianization of the ancient Robigalia (April 25), held at the fifth milestone of the Via Claudi outside Rome to preserve the crops from mildew and other blights.

In many parts of England and Scotland, the custom of walking the parish boundaries is either still observed or has been revived after lapsing for many years. Choirboys and Boy Scouts are often stood on their heads at the most important places on the boundary, which in some cases has not changed since Anglo-Saxon times.

Birds

In imitation of the way in which Christ "flew" up to heaven, it was common in many European countries at one time for people to eat a bird on Ascension Day. Pigeons, partridges, and even crows were served for dinner. In western Germany, bakers made special pastries in the shapes of various birds. Throughout Europe, it was a day for mountain climbing and picnicking in high places.

In Sweden, people traditionally rise early in the morning on Ascension Day and go into the forest to hear the birds sing at sunrise. If a cuckoo is heard from the east or west, it means good luck. But it is a bad omen if the cuckoo is heard first from the north or south. According to an old Swedish saying, "Cuckoo in the west is the very best." After the sun rises, there is a picnic breakfast accompanied by music. These early morning outings are called gök-otta or "early cuckoo morning."

The cuckoo is a symbol of the future and of spring in particular. In modern Germany, the word for cuckoo (kuckuck) is a common euphemism for the devil.

Chasing the Devil

In some countries, a devil is chased through the streets on Ascension Day. When he is caught, he is dunked in a pond or burned in effigy-symbolic of Jesus' triumph over evil when he ascended to heaven.

In Munich, Germany, it was customary up until the end of the eighteenth century for a man disguised as a demon to be chased through the streets on Ascension Eve by people dressed as witches and wizards. When he was caught, he was dunked in puddles and rolled in dung. Upon reaching the royal palace, he took off his disguise and was given a good meal as a reward. The costume he had worn was stuffed with straw and taken to the church, where it was hung in a window in the tower all night. Before vespers on Ascension Day, it was thrown down to the crowd that had assembled outside the church, and a tremendous struggle ensued. The effigy was finally carried out of town and burned on a nearby hill-a ritual intended to drive evil away from the city.

Crickets

In Florence, Italy, people come to the Cascine Park on Ascension Sunday to pick up grillos, or crickets, and put them in decorated boxes or cages with fresh lettuce leaves. If the cricket chirps within three days, it is believed that the family will have good luck. But if the cricket dies, the family dreads whatever ill fortune may befall them.

The cricket is traditionally a symbol of approaching summer. It also represents courage, making it an apt symbol for Ascension Day, when the Apostles watched their Lord leave them and ascend to heaven.

Well Dressing

There are a number of links between water and Ascension Day. In England, the rain that falls on this day is considered to be a remedy for sore eyes, because it falls straight from the heaven that opened up to let Christ enter. The water that is drawn from certain "holy wells" on Ascension Day is also believed to have curative powers.

Well-dressing ceremonies, at one time popular throughout Great Britain, involved decorating the wells with flowers by building frames and trellises around them. After the morning church service, the priest and his congregation would form a procession and visit every well in the area, singing psalms and hymns as they went. The well-dressing ceremony at Tissington in Derbyshire dates back to 1615, when the town's wells continued to flow even during a terrible drought. People came from miles around to draw water, and the well-dressing celebration was instituted to commemorate the event. By the late twentieth century, this well dressing attracted about 50,000 visitors each year.

Some believe that well dressing is a Christian adaptation of the ancient Roman Fontanalia, a festival held in honor of the god of springs, streams, and fountains. Garlands were thrown into springs and placed around the tops of wells. But it was actually the FLORALIA-the festival in honor of Flora, goddess of flowers and gardens-that was held at this time of year.

Wheat

In Portugal, Ascension Day is known as "Ear of Wheat Thursday" because peasants make bouquets from olive branches and sheaves of wheat with poppies and daisies. The olive and the wheat are symbolic of an abundant harvest; the poppy stands for peace, and the daisy represents money. A bit of wheat-a traditional symbol of prosperity-is usually kept in the house throughout the coming year.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian Books, 1994. Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2002. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. James, E.O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Olderr, Steven. Symbolism: A Comprehensive Dictionary. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1986. Pike, Royston. Round the Year with the World's Religions. 1950. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Franz Xaver. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.

WEB SITES

Commission on Inter-Church Relations and Education Development www.cired.org/faith/feast.html

Tissington Hall www.tissington-hall.com

Ascension Day

 

one of the 12 “major” holidays of the Eastern Orthodox Church, celebrated on the 40th day after Easter, in honor of the mythical “ascension” of Christ into heaven.

Ascension Day

Between April 30 and June 3; 40 days after Easter
Ascension Day is one of the earliest Christian festivals, dating back to the year 68. According to the New Testament, Jesus met several times with his disciples during the 40 days after his Resurrection to instruct them in how to carry out his teachings. Then on the 40th day he took them to the Mount of Olives, where they watched as he ascended to heaven.
Reflecting both Christian and pagan customs, Ascension Day celebrations include processions symbolizing Christ's entry into heaven and, in some countries, chasing a "devil" through the streets and dunking him in a pond or burning him in effigy—symbolic of the Messiah's triumph over the devil when he opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
Other customs attached to this day include "beating the bounds"—switching young boys with willow branches as they are driven along parish boundaries, not only to purify them of evil but to teach them the limits of their parish. This gave rise to the name Bounds Thursday in England, where it is also sometimes called Holy Thursday, though in the rest of the world that term applies to Maundy Thursday.
In Germany it is sometimes called Father's Day because Protestant men have herrenpartien, "outings," on this day. In Sweden many people go out to the woods at three or four o'clock to hear the birds at sunrise. It is good luck if a cuckoo is heard from the east or west. These jaunts are called gök-otta, or "early cuckoo morning."
See also Banntag; Holy Thursday
CONTACTS:
Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East
P.O. Box 1977
Fort Macleod, AL T0L 0Z0 Canada
403-553-2731; fax: 403-553-3141
www.cired.org
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia
242 Cleveland St.
Redfern, NSW 2016 Australia
61-2-9698-5066; fax: 61-2-9698-536
www.greekorthodox.org.au
SOURCES:
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 346
BkFest-1937, p. 135
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 49, 1156
DictWrldRel-1989, p. 65
EncyEaster-2002, p. 13
EncyRel-1987, v. 3, p. 440
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 113
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 64, 165, 215
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 241
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 337
OxYear-1999, p. 629
RelHolCal-2004, pp. 95, 121

Celebrated in: Madagascar, Portugal


Ascension Day (Portugal)
Between April 30 and June 3; 40 days after Easter
Also known as Quinta Feira da Espiga, or Ear of Wheat Thursday, Ascension Day in Portugal is associated with wishes for peace and prosperity. Traditionally, in rural communities, people gather olive branches, wheat sheaves, poppies, and daisies and fashion them into bouquets. The olive and wheat are symbolic of an abundant harvest; the poppy represents tranquility, and the daisy stands for money. Many Portuguese preserve a sprig of wheat in their homes as a symbol of prosperity. Another Ascension Day custom is to cull healing plants and herbs to be used later in concocting homemade medicines or magic potions.
SOURCES:
BkFest-1937, p. 268
FestWestEur-1958, p. 165

Celebrated in: Portugal

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