Most of Luke 24 is devoted to the resurrection of Jesus and his subsequent appearances to the disciples. However, the last four verses (24:50-53) briefly describe his ascent into heaven. Within the liturgical life of the Church, the Feast of the Ascension is considered a principal feast, on par with Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. However, many Christians have only a vague understanding of the ascension and its significance within Christian doctrine, even though we proclaim every Sunday in the Nicene Creed that Jesus "ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father."
From Resurrection to Ascension
What was Jesus doing on earth after his resurrection? We know that he appeared to the disciples on several occasions, but it also seems likely that Jesus continued his ministry of teaching between his resurrection and ascension into heaven, a period that lasted, according to tradition, approximately forty days. In Acts 1:3 we learn that Jesus "presented himself alive to [the disciples] after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God." Jesus began his earthly ministry by proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and it seems that he concluded his ministry in the same fashion. The most significant point to be made is that the New Testament suggests that the activity of Jesus after his resurrection was not limited to a few isolated appearances, but was a continuation of his ministry of teaching and preaching.
The Incarnation and the Ascension
Traditional Christian teaching is that Jesus ascended into heaven in bodily form. In other words, Jesus retained his physical human body even as he ascended to the presence of his Father in heaven. Later in Acts 1:11, Jesus says that he will return in the same way that he went into heaven, which suggests that he will return in physical form. This means that the miracle of the incarnation is not just that the eternal Son of God took upon himself our sinful human nature, but also that he will remain both fully divine and fully human forever. This doctrine is confirmed in our Catechism (BCP 850) where it states that "Jesus took our human nature into heaven where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us."
The doctrine of the ascension means that Jesus now abides in physical form in the presence of his Father. When we speak of Jesus being with us always, we speak about his continuing presence through his Spirit (the Holy Spirit), which we will explore tomorrow!