Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, June 19, 2011, The Ascension of Jesus- Fr. Dick Clifford,SJ


EASTER 7 A  6/5/11

            I am sure that some time in your life you have been a guest at a banquet of someone retiring and leaving the company after many years spent in contributing much to the enterprise. If the person is a beloved figure and you have emotional ties to the person as well as to the welfare of the company, it can be a very emotional experience. You are, after all, saying goodbye to someone who was central to your work and to you as a person.

            What I have described does not match up perfectly to the Gospel today, but it helps us approach today’s Gospel, the famous “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus, which he prayed to the Father the night before he died. Jesus reviews the three years he has spent with the disciples, male and female, and tells us about his personal feelings and thoughts as he leaves to go to his heavenly father. He gives the disciples advice and encouragement so they can carry on the great work that he has begun. (The readings in the latter part of Easter are much concerned with continuing the work of Jesus.)

            First, Jesus does what any good leader would do at the time of departure–he sums up what he has been able to accomplish for his disciples. What he has accomplished is absolutely amazing in the history of the world and marks a new stage in the relationship of human beings to God. He has revealed God in a new way, i.e., as presenting the Godhead in his own person. In Jesus, divinity is fully immersed in human affairs. The divine glory that would normally overwhelm humans and leave them speechless was deliberately held back. In the Old Testament, people held God in such awe that they kept their distance. It was commonly thought that if you saw God, the experience would sweep you right out of this world into the other world, i.e., you would die. The tremendous weight of divine glory would crush and pull you out of existence. On special occasions even in the Old Testament, this enormous energy and brilliance could be restrained and one “could eat and drink before God and still live” (Exod 24). We should be careful, however, about speaking of God in the Old Testament. God in the ancient Scriptures was loving as well as just, and constantly reached out in a healing way to Israel and others in the form of Word, Wisdom, and Spirit. God was involved, yet the idea of God becoming a human being to be more present to Israel and more involved with the human race was unthinkable. There was a gulf and that no human would dream of crossing it.

            Yet Jesus redefines God in a dramatic way. And he also redefined humans’ relationship to God, using the rich verb “to know”:  “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Know” here has a special biblical meaning–to have an intimate relationship that involves personal exchange, an exchange between lover and beloved, sharing in love. Jesus tells the disciples and us that you do not understand the God of the Jewish Scriptures unless you know God through Jesus. He is the human face of God. There is a new dimension of God and the disciples are privileged to know God in this way and are privileged to tell others about this relationship.

            Go back to the leave-taking scene I asked you to imagine a moment ago–a beloved leader speaks at a farewell banquet and reflects on the sharing that has taken place between himself or herself and the people remaining in the company or the community.  He tells the guests of the life they had shared together. “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” What a wonderful privilege. The disciples are in the very middle of the loving relationship between Father and Son. And that precisely is our privilege because we are the descendants of those disciples. Just as Jesus prayed for them (“I pray for them”), so he prays for us, or rather holds us close to his heart.

            The “high-priestly prayer of Jesus” is really a love-poem of Father and Son. (Jesus uses the language of hia time, which made use of the language of family to express relationships, whether between individuals or kings. It does not mean that God is a male in a literal  human sense.) We are, happily, in the midst of that relationship. And, as Jesus prays, it means that we are given divine protection. “I pray for the ones you have given me.”

            One last point–about the liturgical celebration today. In the Boston Archdiocese, and also in the Hartford and New York Archdioceses, the Ascension of Jesus was celebrated last Thursday. In other parts of the United States, the Ascension is celebrated today, on Sunday. What does the Ascension mean for us? At first thought, it seems to mean something sad. Jesus is leaving us. As Acts says, after the resurrection, he showed himself for forty days, establishing the community, and then he ascends to the heavens. But notice, no one is sad when he ascends. Instead, the disciples go back to the upper room where they had enjoyed the last supper with him and the pray to God whom they feel is near. Hear how St. Augustine speaks about the Ascension and you will understand why no one wept when Jesus left them. The New Testament is nostalgic about the days of Jesus in the flesh.

For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not bee fulfilled in our bodies. . . . While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, divinity, but in, we can be there by love. He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again to heaven. [Office of Readings, Ascension]

            Let us rejoice that we can come to the banquet of the Lord, hear his words that reveal God to us in a new way. Not only “book knowledge” about God, but the knowledge that creates a relationship. We now see the human face of God and realize afresh how deep and constant is God’s desire to be with us and share His life with us. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice in it.

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