The Solemnity of the Ascension is one of the oldest and most important feasts in the Church. Do your kids know what it’s all about? Here are explainers and activities for kids of all ages, plus four ways to celebrate the feast day.
Do your younger kids know the story of the Ascension? Do your older kids know what it means? The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is the perfect time to teach your kids about the Ascension—what it is, and why it matters to our faith. Maybe you can even talk about it during your Ascension picnic!
Yes, an Ascension picnic is a thing, and we’ll include it in a short list of other cool ways to celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord . . . but first, let’s teach some kids about the Ascension, shall we?
About the Feast of the Ascension
The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is one of the Church’s most ancient feasts, traditionally celebrated forty days after Easter. In places where the traditional date is still celebrated, that means it lands on a Thursday. However, the Vatican has given permission for local bishops’ conferences to transfer the celebration of the Ascension to the following Sunday, and in the United States and Canada, most places have done so. But if you live in the Ecclesiastical Provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha, or Philadelphia, you’ll be celebrating it on Thursday.
The feast is of “great antiquity,” as Wikipedia notes:
Saint Jerome held that it was of Apostolic origin, but in fact the Ascension was originally part of Pentecost (the coming of the Holy Spirit), and developed as a separate celebration only slowly from the late 4th century onward. Eusebius seems to hint at the celebration of it in the 4th century. At the beginning of the 5th century, St. Augustine says that it is of Apostolic origin, and he speaks of it in a way that shows it was the universal observance of the Church long before his time. Frequent mention of it is made in the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in the Constitution of the Apostles. The Pilgrimage of Aetheria speaks of the vigil of this feast and of the feast itself, as they were kept in the church built over the grotto in Bethlehem in which Christ is traditionally regarded as having been born.
Talking about the Ascension with Children
A Simplified Story of the Ascension
Jesus said to the disciples,
“All power in heaven and on earth
has been given to me. 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 behold, I am with you always.”
Then Jesus led them out to Bethany,
raised his hands, and blessed them.
As he blessed them he parted from them
and was taken up to heaven.
They worshipped him
and then returned to Jerusalem
with great joy.
Explaining the Ascension to Children
When explaining the Ascension to younger children, you might try something like this:
- At Christmastime, we remember how God sent his only Son to be with us in the baby Jesus.
- As Jesus grew up, he did all the work his Father wanted to do so that all people could be with him in heaven. And when his work was done, it was time for him to return to heaven to be with his Father. This is what we call “the Ascension.”
- Jesus’ friends were sad to see him go, because it had been so wonderful to be with him after the Resurrection. They wondered why he had to leave.
- But Jesus explained to them that after he went to heaven, he would send the Holy Spirit to them. The Holy Spirit made the friends of Jesus into the Church, and in the Church, Jesus is with us in new ways: In the Eucharist and all the sacraments, and in all of the people. The Holy Spirit makes all of Jesus’ friends into his body so that we can continue his work in the world.
- Jesus also promised his friends that they would follow him to heaven. Because Jesus is with the Father and the Holy Spirit in heaven, we can hope to be with him in heaven one day, too.
The Sense of the Sacred coloring book is a great place to find coloring pages of the Ascension.
Is Heaven Really ‘Up’?
As you talk about the Ascension with your kids, at some point you may want to touch on the role of symbolic imagery in biblical accounts of the Ascension. In Jesus’ time, people commonly thought of the universe as having three parts: the earth, realm of the living; the underworld, realm of the dead; and heaven, the dwelling-place of God. Heaven was separated from Earth by the dome of the sky, a solid blue sphere that rested over the Earth. Heaven was thought to be located above this dome, with God’s throne resting on top of it.
For people with this idea of the universe, it made perfect sense for Jesus (and other holy people) to go to heaven by literally rising upward into the sky.
But while this may have been what God intended the apostles to see, the Church understands this action as being symbolic of the deeper realities outlined above—namely, the return of Jesus to the Father, and his glorification.
In any case, kids should know that heaven is not “up,” nor can we get there on an airplane or a spaceship. For a better idea of the Church’s understanding of this reality, reference John Paul II’s homily on heaven.
The Ascension for Older Kids and Teens
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Ascension in this way:
After forty days during which Jesus showed himself to the apostles with ordinary human features which veiled his glory as the Risen One, Christ ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father. He is the Lord who now in his humanity reigns in the everlasting glory of the Son of God and constantly intercedes for us before the Father. He sends us his Spirit and he gives us the hope of one day reaching the place he has prepared for us.
Reading about the Ascension in Scripture
You might begin exploring the theology of the Ascension with older kids and teens by reading about it in the Bible. The principle passages are Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:6-11. A much shorter account in Mark 16:19-20 is widely regarded as a later addition to that Gospel.
The Gospel of John seems to present the Resurrection, Ascension, and descent of the Holy Spirit as one event; it refers to the Ascension in Jesus’ own words four times:
- “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)
- “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (John 6:62)
- “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (John 12:32)
- and, speaking to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection: “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)
All of the Scriptures are linked to the New American Bible Revised Edition, which has excellent footnotes for teens and more mature kids to explore.
Each of these passages contains text that hints at the meaning of the Ascension. Can your kids make a short list of “facts about the Ascension” based on what they read?
For extra credit, have your kids look up the following references to the Ascension elsewhere in the New Testament: Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:19-20, Colossians 3:1, Philippians 2:9-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, and 1 Peter 3:21-22.
Key Points for Kids and Teens to Learn about the Ascension
Here are four key points for older kids and teens to remember about the meaning of the Ascension:
- Jesus ascended to the Father in his humanity. The Ascension is linked to the Incarnation, the descent from heaven of the Son of God in the form of a little baby. The work of Jesus, the Word-Made-Flesh, is completed in the Ascension, because Jesus returns to the Father not only in his divinity, but also in his humanity. (This is a hugely important point that kids and teens often miss: The resurrected Jesus had a body—a glorified body, but a body all the same.) (See Catechism #659)
- By ascending to the Father, Jesus opens the way to heaven for all of us. Because our humanity is united to Jesus’ humanity through baptism and the Eucharist, his entrance into the presence of the Father opens the way for us to enter heaven, too. (See Catechism #661, 666)
- After his Ascension, Jesus works on our behalf from heaven. “Seated at the right hand of the Father” means that Jesus now intercedes for us, sending us the Spirit and presiding over the liturgy. (See Catechism #662, 667)
- Jesus’ glorification inaugurates the Kingdom of God. The Gospels and the Book of Revelation contain many images of Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father as “king” of heaven and earth, ruler of the nations, and so forth. This imagery points to the reality that in Jesus Christ, God has conquered sin and death, and instituted a new order of justice and peace that begins to be realized in his Church. (See Catechism #664)
You can dig deeper into the fascinating theology of the ascension at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #659-667.
Here’s Bishop Robert Barron on the importance of the Ascension; he says that we need to understand the Ascension as the union of heaven and earth:
4 Ways to Celebrate the Feast of the Ascension with Your Kids
1. Have a picnic…on a hill. In many places, it’s customary to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension by climbing a hill for a picnic, commemorating the disciples’ ascent of the Mount of Olives, traditionally thought to be the place of the Ascension. And what should you eat at this picnic? Traditional foods for the feast day include any kind of bird (because Jesus “flew” to heaven). Plus: It’s still the Easter season, so any food that is traditional for Easter would be appropriate for your Ascension celebration. this might be a great time to try our hot cross buns recipe one last time!
2. Play with balloons. Decorate the house with balloons, or give your children balloons for playing, because balloons remind us to always “look up” to Jesus in heaven. Use marker to decorate the balloons with Christian symbols. Bonus: Place a small LED light inside one or more balloons to make them even more festive. [Amazon]
3. Play upsy daisy. Really little kids will enjoy playing upsy daisy—swing them up into the air while saying, “It’s the Feast of the Ascension!” or “Alleluia!”
4. Fly kites…on a hill. Bonus points if you make the kites yourselves, decorating them with appropriate imagery.