The Chapel of the Ascension and its long history
The Ascension of Jesus is the episode that concludes the narrative of the Gospels and opens that of the Acts of the Apostles. Today, May 26th, the Church commemorates this event, the passage of the risen Jesus from Earth to Heaven. The most vivid narration of the events is contained in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter one. Here are a few passages.
«While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak”. When he said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven”. Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away».
The celebrations of these days are held at the chapel known as the Chapel of the Ascension, located, as the Acts of the Apostles says, on the top of the Mount of Olives. At first sight, the building can disconcert. The pilgrim who arrives here finds himself before the slender volume of a minaret, and a building that has all the air of being a mosque. And indeed, the history of the Chapel of the Ascension is intricate, and for a long time the building was in Muslim hands.
The first Church of the Ascension
Already in very ancient times, at the time of King David,there was a place on the site of the Chapel of the Ascension where the Jewish people used to gather for prayer. In the second book of Samuel, in fact, it is said that David, having climbed the Mount of Olives, finally reached the summit, “to the place where one prostrates oneself to God” (2 Sam 15:32). We know nothing else about this place of worship, which was certainly secondary at the time, given the absolute centrality of the temple in Jerusalem.
In Christian times, a small church was built to commemorate the Ascension of Jesus. It was the Roman aristochratic Poimenia, in 378, who had the work started. The building was erected on top of the Mount of Olives, precisely on a lump of earth that – it was said – bore the footprints of the Lord’s feet as he left the ground for heaven. A V century letter tells us that these footprints could then be seen in the grass, on sandy ground, ‘the only green patch in the whole basilica’.
We are not certain about the architecture of this early Christian church. In all probability, it must have been a rather elegant building, crowned by a roof at the centre of which was a hole. Something similar to today’s dome of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. Poimenia, it is believed, would have kept uncovered the very spot where Jesus’ footprints could be venerated, as a vivid reminder of the words spoken, according to the Acts, by the men in white robes: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
The Ascension becomes a mosque
This proto-Christian little church was destroyed with the advent of the Muslim caliphs. It was only in the XI century that the Crusaders rebuilt a new church on the same site. It is the octagonal structure that can be seen today. Once again, the roof had to be pierced at the central aedicule, when not missing altogether. This time, however, the sod of grass bearing Jesus’ footprints gave way to a stone slab, still visible today. On this, albeit with difficulty, the same footprints that were visible between the 4th and 5th centuries can be recognised.
The Chapel of the Ascension thus met the fate of many of the Crusader structures in the Holy Land. In 1187, Saladin, while conquering Jerusalem, also appropriated the site of this church. The building was not torn down, but was reused as a mosque. For this new purpose, the opening of the roof was not only insignificant from a religious point of view, it was harmful. It only ended up exposing the worshippers gathered in prayer to the vagaries of the weather. It was for this reason that the roof of the church was closed in the typical domed structure that completes mosques. This use of the building for Muslim worship has left the most persistent traces: even today, the roof of the Chapel of the Ascension is a sealed dome, and a mirhab, the niche built in the direction of Mecca, can be seen inside.
From St. Ignatius to our days
Even under Islamic rule, however, the site did not cease to be important to Christians. In the middle of the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola, at the time not yet founder of the Society of Jesus, loved to go and pray at the place that held the last earthly footprints of the Lord’s body. He repeated that he wished Jesus would imprint on his heart such deep marks as those he had left on the ground. But this religious ardour cost him some imprudence: to gain access to the place, in firm Muslim hands, Saint Ignatius had to bribe the guardians. He thus exposing himself to the danger of being punished.
The Franciscans, custodians of the holy places and thus in charge of safeguarding the physical integrity of the pilgrims, when they heard of this recklessness on Ignatius’ part, decided to punish him. . Perhaps they imprisoned him, certainly they expelled him, forcing him to return to Europe.
It was only with the status quo, between the 18th and 19th centuries, that the Christian denominations in the Holy Land secured the right to celebrate the feast on Ascension Day, within the space of the Chapel. Even today, throughout the night preceding the commemoration of the episode, the Eucharist is continuously celebrated at the shrine, immersed in an atmosphere of trepidation and great expectation.