May 25, 2017

Ascension and Pentecost in Fourth Century Jerusalem According to Nun Egeria

Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives

Egeria was a nun who authored a detailed account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the early 380s, making it the earliest of the kind. Regarding the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, she writes:

Easter to Pentecost

Now, from Easter to the fiftieth day, that is, to Pentecost, no one fasts here, not even those who are apotactitae.* During these days, as throughout the whole year, the customary things are done at the Anastasis** from the first cockcrow until morning, and at the sixth hour and at vespers likewise. But on the Lord's Days the procession is always to the Martyrium,*** that is, to the great church, according to custom, and they go thence with hymns to the Anastasis. On the fourth and sixth weekdays, as no one fasts during those days, the procession is to Sion,**** but in the morning; the dismissal is made in its due order.

The Ascension Festival at Bethlehem

On the fortieth day after Easter, that is, on the fifth weekday--(for all go on the previous day, that is, on the fourth weekday, after the sixth hour to Bethlehem to celebrate the vigils, for the vigils are kept in Bethlehem, in the church wherein is the cave where the Lord was born)--on this fifth weekday, the fortieth day after Easter, the dismissal is celebrated in its due order, so that the priests and the bishop preach, treating of the things suitable to the day and the place, and afterwards every one returns to Jerusalem late.*****

Entrance to the Upper Room in Sion


(a) Morning Station

But on the fiftieth day, that is, the Lord's Day, when the people have a very great deal to go through, everything that is customary is done from the first cockcrow onwards; vigil is kept in the Anastasis, and the bishop reads the passage from the Gospel that is always read on the Lord's Day, namely, the account of the Lord's Resurrection, and afterwards everything customary is done in the Anastasis, just as throughout the whole year. But when morning is come, all the people proceed to the great church, that is, to the Martyrium, and all things usual are done there; the priests preach and then the bishop, and all things that are prescribed are done, the oblation being made, as is customary on the Lord's Day, only the same dismissal in the Martyrium is hastened, in order that it may be made before the third hour.

(b) Station at Sion

And when the dismissal has been made at the Martyrium, all the people, to a man, escort the bishop with hymns to Sion, so that they are in Sion when the third hour is fully come.****** And on their arrival there the passage from the Acts of the Apostles is read where the Spirit came down so that all tongues were heard and all men understood the things that were being spoken, and the dismissal takes place afterwards in due course. For the priests read there from the Acts of the Apostles concerning the selfsame thing, because that is the place in Sion--there is another church there now--where once, after the Lord's Passion, the multitude was gathered together with the Apostles, and where this was done, as we have said above. Afterwards the dismissal takes place in due course, and the oblation is made there. Then, that the people may be dismissed, the archdeacon raises his voice, and says: "Let us all be ready today in Eleona, in the Imbomon,******* directly after the sixth hour."

(c) Station at the Mount of Olives

So all the people return, each to his house, to rest themselves, and immediately after breakfast they ascend the Mount of Olives, that is, to Eleona, each as he can, so that there is no Christian left in the city who does not go. When, therefore, they have gone up the Mount of Olives, that is, to Eleona, they first enter the Imbomon, 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. And when this is over, the catechumens and then the faithful are blessed, and they come down thence, it being already the ninth hour, and go with hymns to that church which is in Eleona, wherein is the cave where the Lord was wont to sit and teach His Apostles. And as it is already past the tenth hour when they arrive, lucernare takes place there; prayer is made, and the catechumens and likewise the faithful are blessed.

(d) Night Procession

And then all the people to a man descend thence with the bishop, saying hymns and antiphons suitable to that day, and so come very slowly to the Martyrium. It is already night when they reach the gate of the city, and about two hundred church candles are provided for the use of the people. And as it is a good distance from the gate to the great church, that is, the Martyrium, they arrive about the second hour of the night, for they go the whole way very slowly lest the people should be weary from being afoot. And when the great gates are opened, which face towards the marketplace, all the people enter the Martyrium with hymns and with the bishop. And when they have entered the church, hymns are said, prayer is made, the catechumens and also the faithful are blessed; after which they go again with hymns to the Anastasis, where on their arrival hymns and antiphons are said, prayer is made, the catechumens and also the faithful are blessed; this is likewise done at the Cross. Lastly, all the Christian people to a man escort the bishop with hymns to Sion, and when they are come there, suitable lessons are read, psalms and antiphons are said, prayer is made, the catechumens and the faithful are blessed, and the dismissal takes place. And after the dismissal all approach the bishop's hand, and then everyone returns to his house about midnight.


* Apotactici or Apotactitae (from ἀποτάσσομαι, to renounce), an ancient sect, who, affecting to follow the evangelical counsels of poverty and the example of the primitive Christians, renounced all their possessions. They seem to have been the same as the Apostolici or the Tatianites. During the persecution of Diocletian they had many martyrs; and subsequently adopted the errors of the Encratites, who deemed marriage and unchastity to be the same thing. The sixth law in the Theodosian Code joins the Apotactitae with the Eunomians and Arians.

** The Anastasis is the rotunda where the tomb of Christ is located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

*** The Martyrium is the main church of the Holy Sepulchre.

**** Sion is the location of the upper room, where the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost.

***** This is the earliest testimony we have of the Ascension being celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, which lands on a Thursday. At this time the Ascension was usually celebrated on Pentecost, as it was in Jerusalem during Egeria's time.

****** According to Acts, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles at the third hour.

******* Eleona is the Mount of Olives. Imbomon is the spot where the Lord ascended into heaven on the Mount of Olives where a shrine was located. It appears from this account that in Jerusalem Pentecost was celebrated before the Ascension on the fiftieth day after Easter.