Homily for the Ascension of the Lord

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Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB homily at online Mass on The Ascension of the Lord:


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According to the New Testament, Jesus withdrew from his disciples and was taken up into God on the Mount of Olives (cf. Acts 1:12; Lk 24:50).  The small Chapel of the Ascension – also a mosque – marks the traditional spot. On the same hillside and hill, there are currently two Russian Orthodox monasteries of nuns. Sometime in the 1970s, an atheist Jewish teenager, from South Africa but living in Jerusalem, had developed an interest in Russian history. He heard that, in one of these convents, there was an elderly Russian nun who had had connections with the family of the last Czar. He gained permission to see her. She was paralysed and bed-ridden, but received the boy and answered his enquiries. As he walked home down the Mount of Olives, he realised that this paralysed octogenarian nun – with everything against her, as it were – was the most joyful person he had ever met. So, he made another appointment. And he asked her, “Why are you so joyful?” She smiled, and said, “I am in love, you see.” And then something mysterious happened to him: he became aware of Jesus being there, quite unmistakably, quite undeniably. It would be twelve years before that Israeli boy would be baptized. That’s another story. He is now a Jesuit, working in the Holy Land.

“Gladden us with holy joys, almighty God, and make us rejoice…” began today’s Collect. Joy and the Ascension go together. When St Luke describes Jesus’ Ascension at the end of his Gospel, he says that afterwards the disciples returned to Jerusalem “with great joy” (Lk 24:52). You would not have expected it.  The man who had filled their lives for three years and captivated their hearts had gone. The natural reaction would surely be to feel lost, bereaved, orphaned, scared, alone with their memories. Instead, though, they seemed to be echoing today’s Psalm: “God goes up with shouts of joy. All peoples clap your hands, cry to God with shouts of joy.”

It’s worth exploring this. Why does Christ’s Ascension unleash such joy? It is kept as a high feast. Even in my non-Catholic primary school, it was thought worth a half-holiday. In the monastery, the food is good today. Jesus had said, “When the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast” (Mk 2:20). But we don’t. Why did such joy take hold of the disciples? Two “men in white” appear in the 1st reading – a clue perhaps. Two angels, two messengers. Where there are angels, there are realisations, insights from above. Gaudium de veritate, Joy from the truth, is an old Latin tag. I think the disciples realized “truth” and that gave them joy. They realized many things all at once perhaps, a complex realization it would take the rest of their lives to unfold. What was it? I suppose the whole New Testament is one long answer to that, and indeed our Catholic faith. There’s a sense in which the Christianity we know began with the Lord’s Ascension.

Everything came together for them, I think. The whole story, from beginning to end. They saw that the One who had come down from heaven had now returned to his place of origin. They “got” the plot. The One who had embraced our humanity in birth and work and the bother of daily life, who had gone on his mission, confronted evil and apparently been destroyed by it, who had suffered and died and been buried and had passed to the world of the dead, who had taken on the whole human experience, was now, in that same humanity, taken up into God. He was now returning our humanity to God, lodging it there, as it were, in his Father’s safekeeping. Our flesh and blood and all the rest were now in the heart of the Trinity: consecrated in the Son, welcomed by the Father, transfigured by the Holy Spirit. And all of this “for us”. “I go to prepare a place for you” (Jn 14:3). We have a home at last, “the promise of an inheritance that can never be spoilt or soiled and never fade away, because it is being kept for [us] in the heavens” (1 Pt 1:4).

This meant that the “heavens”, God’s world, so inaccessible for so long, were now no longer closed. Our lockdown had been lifted. Centuries before, the patriarch Jacob had dreamed of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, with angels going up and down (Gen 28:12). Now the dream was reality. Now the roadblocks were removed and the traffic was flowing. It becomes possible to hope and to pray. There is a wide horizon and a new direction, life with a goal, and God always within hearing.

This isn’t about astrophysics or Virgin Galactic. It’s not a change of place for Jesus; it’s the creation of a meta-space, another kind of space and place. It’s about a new personal presence and closeness. At the Last Supper Jesus had said, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come back to you…On that day, you will understand that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14:18, 20). Everything coming together.

One Greco-Russian name for this feast is “salvation fulfilled”. That captures it. “This same Jesus”, the angels tell the disciples, “will come back.” Early Christianity would realise that “come back” did not simply mean “at the end of time”, but in any time, every day. St Paul speaks of the ascended Jesus lifted above everything, and made “head of the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills the whole creation.” And the final words in the Gospel of Matthew? “I am always with you always, yes, to the end of time.”

In his Ascension, Jesus transcends the world of time and space, and therefore can continually return to fill it. There are no forbidden places for him – good to remember when places are currently closed to us. The going was a coming, and the absence a presence. In ten days’ time the coming of the Holy Spirit would confirm and seal all this. And the disciples realized this. “Your joy no one will take from you”, Jesus had said (Jn 16:22).

I go back to that joy-filled Russian nun on the Mount of lives. She would have lived through the Russian Revolution and seen terrible things. She was in exile in Jerusalem. She couldn’t have returned to the Soviet Union at that time. She was living an enclosed life in a tense, sometimes war-torn city. She was old. She was paralysed – and the most joyful person that young man had ever met. That’s what the Ascension enables. She knows this better now than any of us; now she is at home with Christ. “I am in love, you see.”

(Live-streamed Mass, Aberdeen, 21 May 2020)