Why the Son sits on the Father’s ‘right hand’, according to St Augustine

Luca Rossetti da Orta, The Holy Trinity, fresco at St Gaudenzio Church at Ivrea (Torino)

In his Sermon to Catechumens, St Augustine solemnly pronounces that, in heaven, “it is all right-hand, because no misery is there” (De Symbolo, 11). But while a heaven devoid of left-handedness may be bad news for Ned Flanders – owner of the Leftorium and TV’s most famous Christian – it is mindblowingly good news for humanity.

Here’s why.

Yesterday a holy and learned friend asked me a question, put to her by someone in her RCIA class: Why, if the Son is co-equal with the Father – i.e., if he is as fully God as the Father is – does the Creed have him sitting at the Father’s right hand? This seems to imply that the Son is subordinate to the Father – in the way, for example, that a “right-hand man” does the bidding of the boss he sits next to.

It is a very good question. And as so often, it has a very good answer.

First of all, we need not take the phrase too literally. While the Son is replete with a (glorified) human body, the Father is incorporeal. Hence he has neither hands nor sides for the Son literally to sit at. So, as so often, we are speaking here symbolically.

Secondly, the “right hand” is used throughout the Scriptures as a symbol for both intimacy with, and the power and authority of, God. Thus in the Gospels, Jesus quotes from Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’” (Matthew 22:44). Paul, writing to the Ephesians of God’s “incomparably great power”, tells them:

That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. (1:19-21)

Evidently, Paul is not thinking here of the “right hand” as being a subordinate step on a divine podium. Rather, he is claiming that Christ shares precisely the same power and authority that the Father does.

Thirdly, as is now clear, Christ “sits” not as school children do before a teacher, but rather in the way that a Judge or King does. (Christ, of course, is both.) He is “seated” in the sense of being installed in a position of supreme honour and authority.

The idea here is of God “the Father, Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth”, enthroned in the heavens, before whom all Creation bows down. And since the “one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son” is as fully and truly God as the Father is, he is enthroned alongside him, as his equal.

Fourthly and finally, all of this matters – or should matter – to us a great deal. Commenting on this phrase in the Creed, St Thomas quotes St John of Damascus with approval:

We do not speak of the Father’s right hand as of a place, for how can a place be designated by His right hand, who Himself is beyond all place? …But we style, as the Father’s right hand, the glory and honour of the Godhead. (Summa theologiae, III, q. 58, a. 1)

Thus Christ sits at the Father’s right hand since, as true God, he shares in “the glory and honour of the Godhead”.

But remember what we noted above about his having, because he is true Man, a (glorified) human body? Remarkably, this means that, in Christ, humanity itself sits enthroned at the right hand of the Father too. Church Fathers of the calibre of Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus found this fact so amazing that they point it out again and again. And indeed, it undergirds their oft-repeated maxim that “God became man, so that man might become God”.

Through Christ, we are (or at least have the potential to become) “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). As such, then in our rightful home of heaven, we will dwell in the divine beatitude – that is to say, at the right hand of the Father, along with our fellow human being Jesus Christ.

And that is why, for Augustine, there can be no left-handedness in the happiness of our heavenly home. For “There it is all right-hand.”