I know this is a few days late, but I just received a copy of a homily on the Ascension by Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., former Master of the Order of the Friars Preachers. Fr Timothy gave the following homily at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption & St Gregory, Warwick Street, London on Sunday. Here are a few excerpts.
Just outside Jerusalem, you can see the Chapel of the Ascension. There is a footprint of a right foot in the rock, as if Jesus had used it as a launching pad. And people often wonder how long Jesus went on going up. I spend much of my time at 36,000 feet. What might I have seen then?
The point is that today we celebrate Jesus' disappearance. At Easter we celebrated the appearances of the Risen Lord to the disciples. And now we celebrate that they ceased. He withdraws and is seen no more. And Luke's gospel, which we have just heard, tells us that the disciples went back to Jerusalem filled with joy. So what is so joyful about the disappearance of Jesus? You might have thought that it was a cause for sorrow.
One explanation might be that Jesus is going back to his Father. Having completed his work on earth he is going home to the Father. But this does not seem quite right, because the Father has never been absent. God is everywhere. Jesus could not make a journey back to God, as if the Father lived on some fluffy cloud in the sky.
Perhaps it would be better to think of the disappearance of Jesus as part of our homecoming. Jesus says in John's gospel: 'When I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.' The disciples had been at home with Jesus. They had shared his company, eaten and drunk with him, walked with him to Jerusalem, and witnessed his death and Resurrection. He had been their companion, the centre of the community.
But Jesus must disappear if they are to be not just with him but at home in him. With the Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus is transformed from being someone with whom the disciples are at home. Instead he becomes their home. They used to be with his body. Now they are becoming his body, as we are the Body of Christ. They have to lose him, paradoxically, if they are to discover this new intimacy.
It is the opposite of our own birth. When we are born, we lose the warm cosy home of the womb so as to be at home with our mother. We lose the intimacy of being in our mother's body so as to be able to see her face to face. The joy and the pain of birth is that we lose one form of intimacy, snuggling up inside our mother, being one body with her, so as to gain another and deeper intimacy, which is seeing her face, being with her, and eventually being able to talk to her. With our Christian rebirth, it is the other way around. The disciples lose Jesus as the one whose face they can see so as to find him as the one in whom they can be at home.
... the whole long history of salvation has been of God's slow disappearance. At the beginning, God walks in 'the cool of the day' in the garden, just like one of us after a hard day at work. But God comes to Abraham and Sarah in fire and smoke in the night, and then as three mysterious strangers needing food. He wrestles with Jacob. By the time we get to Moses, we have only a voice from a burning bush, and unbearable visions on the mountain. Then with the establishment of the Kingdom of David, God is seen no more. He speaks through the voices of the prophets. Finally he appears in an ordinary man who dies on a cross and shouts out, 'O God, my God, why have you abandoned me?' Today he disappears altogether.
So God is like the Cheshire Cat, slowly disappearing from our sight. But this is so that we may become more intimate. We lose God as over against us, a powerful stranger, the Big Guy who runs the Universe, so that we can discover him at the very heart of our existence. St Augustine famously said that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. 'Late have I loved, O beauty so ancient and so new. For behold you were within me and I was outside; and I sought you outside. You were with me and I was not with you.' As Thomas Merton, the Cistercian said, we lose him as an object so as to find him as a subject, the core of our own subjectivity. We do not look at God so much as with God.
So like the disciples, we can rejoice today at the disappearance of Jesus. It is all part of our coming home to God, or God's making his home in us. So the Church should be a sign of our home in God.
...The apostles who witnessed the disappearing of Jesus still clung on to images of God that took time to go. It took them time to realise that the God who only wanted to have Jews in his community was gone and that we Gentiles also are at home.
We are all learning.
The chapel of the Ascension is both a Church and also a mosque, a shared holy place for Christians and Muslims. It is a sign of God's unimaginably spacious home. Happy Ascension!