“… And ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.”
During the forty days after Christ’s resurrection on Pascha (Easter) he appeared in his resurrection body to his disciples. Disciples here do not mean only the twelve. St. Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians writes:
“….. he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (I Cor 15:4-8)
Christ also appeared to Mary Magdalene. Incidentally, all this provides evidence for the truth of the resurrection. Christ did not only appear to his closest disciples but to a large number of people. It may be possible for a few people to share a hallucination, but appearing to such a large number of people in so many different times and places is strong evidence for the resurrection.
In any case, on the fortieth day after His resurrection, Jesus Christ ascended into heaven. The account of His ascension is found at the end of the Gospel according to St. Luke and in the beginning of the Book of Acts.
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.” (Lk 24:50-51)
“And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)
Originally these were two separate books. The Gospel tells us about Christ’s life, death and resurrection while the Book of Acts gives the history of the early church, or at least a few parts of it. These two book were written by St. Luke. St. Luke was a gentile (i.e., not a Jew) convert to Christianity. He was trained as a physician and not surprisingly scholars consider his Greek to be that of an educated man. He was a disciple of St. Paul and sometimes accompanied St. Paul on his missionary journeys.
This story may seem foolish to skeptics, but the idea of Jesus Christ’s bodily ascension into heaven tells us something important. When Jesus Christ became man he became a genuine human being. His body was not a sort of costume that He put on temporarily, as some gnostic heretics said, because to be human means to be embodied. Christ’s ascension means that He took our humanity with Him to heaven.
This means that our hope for the future being not the bodiless soul in heaven but rather of resurrection.
The ascension shows us that God and humanity are restored to communion. The sin of Adam and Eve had shut the gates of paradise to us and Christ’s ascension shows that the gates of heaven are now open to human beings. In addition, the Fathers of the church said that “God became man so that man can become God.” Now of course, we never acquire a divine nature, rather we become God-like by God’s grace. The Fathers call this theosis or deification. Christ ascended with a deified humanity showing us that we too are on the road to deification, or become god-like.
We should also pay attention to the phrase “sits at the right hand of the Father.” The phrase is more than a simple mentioning of Christ’s location. Rather no one can sit down at the right hand of a king, unless he is equal in dignity with the King. These few words remind us again that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God, sharing the nature of the Father.
Finally, we should mention the Mother of God. Tradition tells us that after she died a genuinely human death Christ took her body and soul into heaven. This tells us that at the end of time, Christ will raise us body and soul from the grave and we will live in our resurrection bodies as Christ and the Mother of God do now.