As we get closer to observing the Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, a closer look at their origins is timely. If you like solving puzzles, the upcoming feasts of Ascension and Pentecost provides a number of questions to solve. Some of those questions are about the timing, like when did the Ascension happen? What was the Feast that brought so many people to Jerusalem? When did these Feasts enter the Orthodox liturgical calendar? And more.
Carefully reading the Scriptures coupled with some scholarship, can help us recognize how these pieces of a puzzle begin to fit. We have to admit though that because the Orthodox Tradition is dynamic and living, and thus things happen organically, we have to admit that we can’t always pinpoint when something happened. Even St. Basil the Great noted that the practice of making the Sign of the Cross was quite old but no one was sure how it developed!
Of course, we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Christ on the fortieth day after the Resurrection (always a Thursday) and the Feast of Pentecost on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection (always a Sunday). According to liturgical scholars, these feasts, and the observation of mid-Pentecost, entered the liturgical calendar by the end of the fourth century (the late 300s), but not everywhere in the Christian world. That would take longer.
Originally, the period of Pentecost was a fifty-day period (the word itself means fiftieth) of celebration of the Resurrection, with every day treated as a Sunday. This meant no fasting or kneeling when praying. (Scholars note that the canons about fasting and kneeling come from this period.). This was being done to extend the celebration of the Resurrection, which over time began to include the celebration of the Ascension, and the gift of the Spirit. There are even a few references to anticipating the return of Jesus during the Pentecost. Recall that, in our liturgical life, we use the Pentecostarion from Pascha until the Feast of All Saints, which falls the Sunday after Pentecost.
When we read the New Testament, we can see the events in this celebratory perspective and slightly differently. The Gospel reading for the Feast (Luke 24:36-53) does not specify when the Ascension occurred. Neither does the Gospel of Matthew 28:16-20, which we often associate with the event. The Epistle reading Acts of the Apostles (chapter 1:1-12), verses 1-5, gives us more information. In that account, Jesus appeared to the disciples over forty days, teaching until the day when he was “taken up.” From this account, we can see why we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension on the fortieth day after the Resurrection.
As far as the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the Gospel of John (20:19-23), when the resurrected Christ first appears to the disciples, he gives them the Holy Spirit. Verse 22 reads, “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This gift, according to a Monk of the Eastern Church, is the first coming of the Spirit, but not with power, which will come at Pentecost. The day of Pentecost, reported in Acts of the Apostles 2, the fiftieth day, refers to the fiftieth day after Passover, on which the Jewish Feast of Weeks (see Deuteronomy 16:9) was observed. The importance of the Feast helps us understand why so many different people were in Jerusalem that day when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles “with power” and Peter spoke to the crowds.