Text: Timothy Radcliffe OP on Ascension Sunday

 Fr Timothy gave the following homily at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption & St Gregory, Warwick Street, London on Sunday. 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 loose him, paradoxically, if they are to discover this new intimacy. It is the opposite of our own birth. When we are born, we loose the warm cosy home of the womb so as to be at home with our mother. We loose 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 loose 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. This year, since the bishops moved the feast of the Ascension to the Sunday, Jesus took rather longer to disappear than last year! But actually 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. But 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 outsideYou were with me and I was not with you.' As Thomas Merton, the Cistercian said, we loose 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. Most of us will live through moments in which God appears to disappear from us. We lose God. When we are children we may loose God as the old man with a beard in the sky, as we shall lose Father Christmas. As we grow older, we may lose God as a comforting presence, or Jesus as our friend. I went through a period in my early days as a friar, even before I was ordained, when God seemed to have gone. It can be very frightening and painful. Some people feel that they have tumbled out of belief and that the world has no meaning. Then we have to wait until God gives himself more intimately than we could have guessed. Saints like Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux had to wait a long time. 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. But let's be honest. It does not always feel like home. Lots of people do not feel at ease in the Church. This may be because we feel that God does not want us here. If that is the case, then we are living with some image of God that needs to disappear. Maybe we still have God as the celestial policeman, the accuser of sins, God as the eternal parking attendant, waiting to catch us out, or God as the great President of the Universe. In which case, we have not yet fully celebrated the Ascension. We must let these images of God disappear, fade away, so that we can discover the God who delights in our very existence, and dwells at the core of our being. Or maybe it is other people who make us feel ill at ease, not at home. I think that this may be something this congregation has experienced from time to time! We may feel that we are not proper Catholics or second class because we are gay, or divorced and remarried, or poor, or because life has just taken unexpected turns. Most lives do! In which case rather than be angry or internalise that rejection, we must be compassionate for those whose lives are haunted by oppressive images of 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! Timothy Radcliffe OP

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