Church of the Week: Chapel of the Ascension

Before the conversion of Constantine (312), early Christians honored the Ascension of Christ in a cave on the Mount of Olives, probably because of concerns for safety. By the time the pilgrim Egeria visited Jerusalem in 384, the place of the Ascension was venerated on this site, uphill from the cave.

The first church was built here around 390 by Poimenia, a pious Roman lady. The original church was destroyed in the Persian attack of 614 but restored by Modestus. In 680, the pilgrim Arculf described the church as a round building open to the sky, with three porticoes entered from the south. Eight lamps shone brightly at night through windows facing Jerusalem. Inside was a central edicule containing the footprints of Christ "plainly and clearly impressed in the dust" inside a railing. Pilgrims were permitted to take some of the dust home with them!

A 9th-century record notes that the church was served by three clergy and presbyters. When the Crusaders arrived, they rebuilt the Church of the Ascension as a roofed octagon (c.1150) and fortified the exterior. In 1198, after the fall of the Crusader kingdom, Salah al-Din gave the church to two of his followers, who added a stone dome and mihrab. The ascension of Jesus is recognized in Islam, although it is not mentioned in the Qur'an. The building remained in use as a mosque for over 300 years and the site remains to this day in Muslim possession.

Entered from the west, the chapel has a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca in the south wall. On the floor, inside an asymmetrically placed frame marking the spot tradition says is the last place Jesus' feet stood on earth before he ascended, is a slab of stone with an imprint said to be the footprint of Christ:

However, if this footprint was made by Jesus, he was an exceptionally small man; the foot looks like a size 7 or so. Another portion of the rock, bearing the left footprint, was reportedly taken to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Middle Ages.

The lovely Robin and I visited this chapel several times, most recently in February 2010, where with a group of friends we read Acts 1:6-11. It was inspiring on this wonderfully clear morning to look past the dome of the chapel to the sky and remember the words, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11, NIV).

No comments:

Post a Comment