The Joyce Hill Column
Commemorating the Ascension
Even before Christianity became a publicly acknowledged religion, the faithful in Jerusalem commemorated Jesus’ Ascension at a site near the summit of the Mount of Olives. In fact, none of the New Testament accounts names the place where the Ascension took place: Luke 24: 51 associates it with Bethany, but there is no reference to location in the other two accounts, Mark 16: 19 and Acts 1: 3. Still, Bethany is in the right general direction, and it is perhaps natural for tradition to associate the Ascension with an elevated position, one, moreover, that figures so prominently elsewhere in the gospel narratives. It seems that at first the practice of annual commemoration took place as part of the Easter celebration: Luke, after all, implies that the Ascension occurred on the evening of the Day of Resurrection. But the account in Acts places it forty days later, and this became the established annual feast-day from the fourth century onwards.
Christians in Jerusalem congregated on the Mount of Olives at a spot where they believed two marks in the rock showed where Christ stood before he was lifted up. One of these marks, taken to be that of the right foot, can still be seen there now, although the other was removed to the El Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. When Constantine’s mother, Helena, made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326-28, she accepted this as the place where Christ’s feet had last stood on this earth, and she honoured it by ordering a circular sanctuary to be erected around the rock, enhanced by porticoes and arches. Unusually, it was open to the sky, as was symbolically fitting for the site of the Ascension. We get a glimpse of the early Ascension liturgy from a Latin text written by a wealthy woman from the western part of the Roman empire who made a pilgrimage around the Holy Land in the 380s. She described how the procession of clergy and people came out from Jerusalem and entered the holy building: ‘that is, the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven, and the bishops and the priests take their seat there, and likewise all the people. Lessons are read there with hymns interspersed, antiphons too are said suitable to the day and the place, also the prayers which are interspersed have likewise similar references. The passage from the Gospel is also read where it speaks of the Lord’s Ascension, also that from the Acts of the Apostles which tells of the Ascension of the Lord into heaven after His Resurrection’.
Shortly after this visit, a church was built beside the circular sanctuary. These structures were mostly destroyed in 614 when Jerusalem was captured by the Persian Shah, but fourteen years later the Christian Emperor Heraclius recaptured the city and the buildings were restored. It was this seventh century complex, still with a circular sanctuary around the footprints, that was seen by Bishop Arculf who, on his return home to Gaul, got seriously blown off course and ended up on Iona, where he described the site to Abbot Adomnan (c. 624-704), who used this and other information to write a detailed account of the Holy Places. When Adomnan then visited the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, he took a copy of this text with him, and it formed the basis for Bede’s popular study of the Holy Places written probably around 702-3. From then on, descriptions of the site commonly figured in Ascension Day sermons as a means of engaging the imagination of the faithful.