Homily for the Ascension Year B 2021
Over many recent months people have by physically isolated from one another, but thanks to modern technology we have discovered that being physically in the same room with someone is not the only way you can be present to them. You can have a very real contact with someone who is miles away. We can fit a few hundred people in our church here. But over Easter there were thousands of people connected with us online.
We know that Jesus had contact with a limited number of people during his earthly life: those whom he physically met. This contact continued, amazingly, after his death when he was seen by his disciples for a significant number of weeks. But the ascension was the moment when that kind of contact came to an end. ‘A cloud took him out of their sight,’ we read. In other words: his visible presence was withdrawn into the mystery of God. Jesus was no longer physically present, in order to be present in a new way, not just to a limited number of people in Palestine, but to everyone in the world.
For us being present via webcam, or zoom, or phone or mobile is a second best compared to physical presence. For Jesus and us it is different. He has withdrawn from human sight in order to be much closer again. His presence now is more like the way a mother is present to the child in her womb, or the way the ocean is present to the fish that swims in it. We are members of his body.
But the presence of Jesus ascended isn’t inert, like a piece of wood resting on a stone. It’s active. St Mark says that as the disciples went out the risen Lord worked with them. The description of his work is fairly dramatic: picking up snakes and drinking poison with no harm, healing the sick, expelling demons. This dramatic kind of work has continued down through the centuries until our present day, in the lives of very exceptional people. The temptation might be to say, ‘Well my faith is certainly not exceptional, so this gospel text doesn’t apply to me.’ Happily, that’s not true.
You only have to think that the most dangerous snakes on this planet are in fact the two-legged ones. Ourselves. And there can be plenty of poison in the human heart – you don’t have to drink it. You are much more likely to spew it out! This is where real unhappiness comes from – it come from inside. And the work of Jesus with us is to heal, protect and nourish. St Paul, writing to his community in Corinth made the point that, whatever about dramatic gifts that win admiration, by far the most important one is love. This is the real healer. This is life. The Lord’s work with us and on us is to make us alive and life-giving.
The Lord can work in extraordinary ways if we give him space to do it. But we have to let him. We are told in the gospels that even in his earthly life Jesus was rendered almost powerless in his home town of Nazareth because so few people really believed in him.
We know the kind of scene on a plane or ship where someone has taken ill, and an announcement is made, ‘Is there a doctor on board?’ Imagine a plane where someone is desperately ill and cabin staff are struggling to help. Imagine that you are a doctor and nobody thinks of asking for help. Imagine how frustrated you would be. How would you get through to them?
Things start changing when we actually invite the Lord to work with us. New possibilities emerge, fears subside, tempers cool, people get creative and find solutions.
And it only takes a second or two. At an auction it often takes just the slightest gesture for a bidder to communicate with the auctioneer. It’s the same with the Lord, the merest gesture, in the fluttering of an eyelash, in a heartbeat, in a single breath, we can issue our invitation. We can make an opening in our world for God to get in and change things.
Through signs of bread and wine, let us enter into a presence that does work wonders, a presence that heals and saves, a body and a life-blood closer to us than our own.
Fr Columba OSB