Most Americans are aware of the major Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, whether they observe them or not. Many Americans, though, even if they are Christian, are not familiar with some of the minor holidays of the Christian calendar. For example, today is Ascension Day. Do you know what this day means and why some Christians observe it?
In the first chapter of the book of Acts, Luke reports that Jesus spent forty days with his apostles after the resurrection, explaining to them what he had accomplished and preparing them to share that news with the rest of the world. On the fortieth day, he met them on a hill near the town of Bethany, overlooking the city of Jerusalem. After a brief conversation, Jesus blessed the apostles, and then rose up into the sky until a cloud hid him from their sight. Two angels joined the apostles on the hill and assured them that Jesus would be seen in the sky again just as they had seen him rise into the sky.
Where is Jesus now that he has ascended? The Bible and other Christian writings say that he is “seated at the right hand of God the Father.” What does that mean, though? Jesus is human, and he has hands. But does God the Father also have hands? Not literally, no. To be seated at the right hand is to be in control. Many leaders speak of having a right hand, which means another person that helps them get things done. God the Father has given all creation to Jesus—as Jesus himself said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Other pictures in the Bible of a right hand to a leader are Joseph, son of Jacob, who ran Egypt; and first Haman and then Mordecai who ran the Persian Empire for Xerxes.
The right hand of God the Father is not a place, then, but a job of power and responsibility. Where is Jesus, then? Because he is God, we know that Jesus is present everywhere, just as he knows everything and can do anything. What has happened, though, to his human body? Since his ascension, has he put that body into storage somewhere until he needs it again to appear in glory on the Last Day of history as we know it?
Many centuries ago, when questions were raised about Jesus, early Christians studied the Bible and found answers to those questions. One of the conclusions they reached is that Jesus the Son of God and Jesus the Son of Mary is one person, not two people. He is fully human and fully divine at the same time. Therefore, anything you say about Jesus as God is also true of Jesus the man. Anything you say about Jesus the man is also true about Jesus as God. To put it plainly, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, is everywhere, knows everything, can do anything, and is holy, eternal, and unchanging. But the Son of God, who is fully God, was born to Mary. Mary held God in her arms. Mary changed God’s diapers. God grew up, learning to walk and to talk. God ate and drank and slept. God was arrested in a garden, dragged from courtroom to courtroom, was nailed to a cross and killed. God died. Yet, dying, he did not cease to exist. His body was placed in a tomb. His soul was in Paradise, in the hands of his Father, until he rose from the dead on Easter.
This teaching is bewildering, but it is also comforting. The human Jesus is not in storage. He is running the universe. When Jesus hears your prayers, he understands what you are saying. He’s been there. He’s done that. As God he has the power to answer your prayers, but our God is not a God who does not understand us because he is not one of us. God is one of us, to bring us to himself.
On Ascension Day, Christians celebrate more than Jesus rising into the sky. We celebrate Jesus seated at the right hand of God the Father. We celebrate Jesus filling the universe with his presence so he can rule all things to the benefit of his people. We celebrate Jesus hearing and answering our prayers because he understands us. We also celebrate the Day when he will be seen again, in glory in the clouds, just as the apostles saw him ascend into the clouds.