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Ascension

After his res­ur­rec­tion from the dead Jesus appeared to men for a peri­od of forty days after which he “was tak­en up into heav­en, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mk 16:19; see also Lk 24:50 and Acts 1:9–11).

The ascen­sion of Jesus Christ is the final act of his earth­ly mis­sion of sal­va­tion. The Son of God comes “down from heav­en” to do the work which the Father gives him to do; and hav­ing accom­plished all things, he returns to the Father bear­ing for all eter­ni­ty the wound­ed and glo­ri­fied human­i­ty which he has assumed (see e.g. Jn 17).

The doc­tri­nal mean­ing of the ascen­sion is the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very pen­e­tra­tion of man into the inex­haustible depths of divinity.

We have seen already that “the heav­ens” is the sym­bol­i­cal expres­sion in the Bible for the uncre­at­ed, imma­te­r­i­al, divine “realm of God” as one saint of the Church has called it. To say that Jesus is “exalt­ed at the right hand of God” as St. Peter preached in the first Chris­t­ian ser­mon (Acts 2:33) means exact­ly this: that man has been restored to com­mu­nion with God, to a union which is, accord­ing to Ortho­dox doc­trine, far greater and more per­fect than that giv­en to man in his orig­i­nal cre­ation (see Eph 1–2).

Man was cre­at­ed with the poten­tial to be a “par­tak­er of the divine nature,” to refer to the Apos­tle Peter once more (2 Pet 1:4). It is this par­tic­i­pa­tion in divin­i­ty, called theo­sis (which lit­er­al­ly means deifi­ca­tion or diviniza­tion) in Ortho­dox the­ol­o­gy, that the ascen­sion of Christ has ful­filled for human­i­ty. The sym­bol­i­cal expres­sion of the “sit­ting at the right hand” of God means noth­ing oth­er than this. It does not mean that some­where in the cre­at­ed uni­verse the phys­i­cal Jesus is sit­ting in a mate­r­i­al throne.

The Let­ter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ’s ascen­sion in terms of the Jerusalem Tem­ple. Just as the high priests of Israel entered the “holy of holies” to offer sac­ri­fice to God on behalf of them­selves and the peo­ple, so Christ the one, eter­nal and per­fect High Priest offers him­self on the cross to God as the one eter­nal, and per­fect, Sac­ri­fice, not for him­self but for all sin­ful men. As a man, Christ enters (once and for all) into the one eter­nal and per­fect Holy of Holies: the very “Pres­ence of God in the heavens.”

…we have a great high priest who has passed through the heav­ens, Jesus, the Son of God. …(Heb 4:14)

For it was fit­ting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blame­less, unstained, sep­a­rat­ed from sin­ners, exalt­ed above the heav­ens. …He has no need like those high priests to offer sac­ri­fice dai­ly, first for his own sins and then for those of the peo­ple; he did this once and for all when he offered up himself.

Now, the point in what we are say­ing is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seat­ed at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heav­en, a min­is­ter in the sanc­tu­ary and the true taber­na­cle which is set up not by man but by the Lord (Heb 7:26; 8:2).

For Christ has entered, not into a sanc­tu­ary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heav­en itself, now to appear in the pres­ence of God on our behalf (Heb 9:24).

… when Christ had offered for all time a sin­gle sac­ri­fice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his ene­mies should be made a stool for his feet (Heb 10:12–13; Ps 110:1).

Thus, the ascen­sion of Christ is seen as man’s first entry into that divine glo­ri­fi­ca­tion for which he was orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed. The entry is made pos­si­ble by the exal­ta­tion of the divine Son who emp­tied him­self in human flesh in per­fect self-offer­ing to God.