“Suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” (Acts 1:1-11).
We all have a mental picture of what it looked like when Jesus left his disciples and ascended to God the Father. The disciples stood there, staring up at the sky and not even seeing the angels beside them.
Each year, Christians gather on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem to recreate that moment. They go to Jerusalem because the next verse of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that, after the Ascension, “the disciples returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away” (1:12).
While Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus led his followers “as far as Bethany” (24:50) before the Ascension, traditions back to at least the fourth century links the Mount of Olives with the Ascension.
When St. Helen, mother of the emperor Constantine, traveled to the Holy Land in 326-328 A.D., she identified the Mount of Olives as the site of the Ascension. This was recorded by the Christian historian Eusebius. Helen, backed by her son, ordered a chapel to be built there. That chapel was said to be open to the sky, as if awaiting Christ’s return.
The Middle East has long been an area of conflict, and Helen’s chapel was destroyed and rebuilt several times.
- That first chapel was destroyed in 614, when the Persians invaded Palestine.
- Rebuilt in the late seventh century, the chapel was again an open-roofed structure, according to a pilgrim from 680.
- This third structure was also destroyed — leaving only a small enclosure around a stone in the floor — and then rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century.
- The Kingdom of Jerusalem fell in 1187 to the Muslim leader, Saladin. In 1198, Saladin gave what was left of that Crusader church on the Mount of Olives to two of his own followers. They added a stone dome to the small chapel-like structure, preserving it because Muslims also honor Jesus’ Ascension.
This small structure was used as a mosque for 300 years. Today, you can still see the mihrab (prayer space) built in the wall. This mihrab indicates the direction of Mecca.
Saladin’s domed structure still stands, but was in ruins by the end of the 15th century. A neighboring mosque and minaret were added in the 17th century and repairs, including an octagonal wall, were made. Today, we know this as the Chapel of the Ascension, an oratory (prayer space).
This oratory remains under Muslim control and is part of “The Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem” — a religious trust that has been charged with caring for Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem since the days of Saladin. Today, it is the responsibility of the King of Jordan to pay for any repairs.
Inside the chapel, you can still see that small enclosure in the floor. Inside is an indented rock. Tradition says the imprint was made by Jesus’ right foot when he rose to heaven. Nearby stands a sand-filled box where pilgrims may leave lighted candles. There is a similarly indented rock in the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Muslim site built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It is said that this rock bears the mark of Jesus’ left foot. It was taken from the site of the Ascension chapel in the Middle Ages. (The al-Aqsa Mosque was, for a time, used as a palace and stables by the Crusaders, but only until 1187 and Saladin’s victory.)
As pilgrims stand outside of the Chapel of the Ascension today, they might notice metal hooks attached to its walls. The purpose of these is clear only once a year, on the Feast of the Ascension.
On that day, Christians of all faiths gather, starting the night before on the feast’s vigil, to take turns entering the chapel to pray. Since 1187, when the Franciscans received permission from Saladin, Christians have been allowed to offer continuous prayer in the chapel only once a year. (Small groups may pray inside on other days.) The Ascension is also the only day of the year when Latin-rite Catholics may celebrate Mass inside the chapel.
Needless to say, the day draws crowds. So, the Franciscans — together with Armenian, Syriac and Coptic Catholics and the Greek Orthodox — set up tents outside the chapel for the various groups to gather. Their tents are anchored to the chapel by those hooks.
Mass inside the chapel is celebrated by the Franciscans, since they are the International Custodians of the Holy Land. Other denominations take turns entering the chapel for prayer. According to rules that maintain order, prayers and celebrations follow a sequence of precise times for each group.
While the Chapel of the Ascension is a key site of celebration on Ascension Thursday, it is not the only site tied to the Ascension on the Mount of Olives.
- There is also the 19th century Russian Orthodox Mount Olive Convent of the Ascension. This houses religious women as part of the Russian Eccleciastical Mission in Jerusalem.
- The Lutheran’s Church of the Ascension was completed in 1914 and includes the Augusta Victoria Hospital, which specifically treats Palestinian patients.
- The Mount of Olives Hotel, adjacent to the Chapel of the Ascension, has a 12th century basement that Knights Templar once used.
- The nearby Greek Orthodox Church of the Ascension is the center of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. This church hosted the 1964 meeting between Blessed Paul VI and Athenagoras, Patriarch of Constantinople. This church is also called Viti Galilaei, which in Latin means “men of Galilee,” referring back to the angels’ words to Jesus’ disciples in the Acts of the Apostles.
Sources: Jerusalem-mission.org; the “Catholic Encyclopedia”; Custodia Terra Sancte at custodia.org; catholiccuture.com; biblewalks.com; bibleplaces.com; sacred-destinations.com; isrealinsideout.com; Jerusalem-patriarchate.info; seetheholyland.com; and LWFJerusalem.info.
Kasten is the author of several books, including “Linking Your Beads” (OSV press) about the rosary.