This is the text of a sermon given at the Discalced Carmelite Monastery Church, Kew, on the Feast of the Ascension last year.
Some years ago, on the feast of the Ascension, I was caught by surprise by a colleague of mine, older and wiser than myself. He said: "I can't believe we are meant to take literally St Luke's account of the Ascension of our Blessed Lord. I don't see Jesus shooting up to heaven like a rocket. The story is a symbolic expression of Our Lord's return to his Father."
I myself find no difficulty in accepting what Luke tells us really happened. Our Lord had been appearing to his apostles and others many times during forty days. He used to appear suddenly in their midst, and as suddenly vanish. But on this occasion, to let them know that he was no longer going to appear to them, he did not just suddenly vanish nor did he walk away. He let the apostles see him rise slowly from the ground until a low-lying cloud or mist shut him off from their sight.
So far, the account records historical fact, a happening they could see with their eyes. What happened next history cannot tell us. It is by faith that we know the different kind of fact, the fact that he went to sit at the right hand of his Father in heaven.
As Jesus disappeared the apostles saw what looked like two men in white who spoke to them. That is a statement of historical fact: either they did see them or they did not. We can examine whether the statement is true or false. Similarly either the two men did speak or they did not; they apparently had human voices and the apostles certainly had ears to hear them.
In our first reading today, taken from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, with the words "In my earlier work" (Acts 1:1) St Luke refers to his Gospel. The prologue to that Gospel shows that Luke intended to write history, not symbolic mythology nor even primarily a work of theology. I quote: "Seeing that many others have undertaken to draw up accounts of the events that have taken place among us, exactly as these were handed down to us by those who from the outset were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, I in my turn, after carefully going over the whole story from the beginning, have decided to write an ordered account for you, Theophilus, so that your Excellency may learn how well founded the teaching is that you have received" (Acts 1:1-4).
Luke says he proposes to give an account of "events that have taken place", that is, he is going to say what happened, to present the kind of facts which history deals with. He has acquired his knowledge of these facts, by careful investigation, directly or indirectly, from eyewitnesses of what happened. It is to be an "ordered" account. "After going over the whole story from the beginning" he is going to make a selection from all that happened. His Gospel is going to take the form of what St Justin about the middle of the second century describes as "memoirs".
Luke tells us that many others before him had "undertaken to draw up accounts of the events" he himself had investigated. One of these accounts which he certainly made use of was St Matthew's Gospel. But there is much that Luke reports, which is not found in any of the other three Gospels. This he had learnt by his own researches, when travelling with St Paul and when staying in Palestine during Paul's imprisonment in Caesarea.
He seems to have interviewed many who had known our Lord. He is the only evangelist to give the names of several of the women who attended to the needs of Jesus and the apostles. Like Matthew and Mark, Luke writes of Jesus as Jesus was seen and understood by his contemporaries in his lifetime on earth.
It is interesting to look at how the four evangelists end their Gospels. For Matthew, the climax to which Jesus' mission led was the grand commission given by Jesus to his apostles on the mountain in Galilee "to go and teach all nations". Mark's original ending is lost. The climax John chose echoed his opening sublime Prologue - "In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God". It was the profession of faith by Thomas in our Lord's divinity, "My Lord and my God". The episode of the picnic breakfast by the lake was an afterthought, an epilogue.
For Luke, the climax of our Lord's life on earth was his life's ending, the Ascension, when Jesus finally closed this visible mortal life to return, as faith tells us he did, to his Father in heaven.
Just before he ascended our Lord reminded the Apostles of the coming of the Holy Spirit, which he had told them about at the Last Supper. He said: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses, not only in Jerusalem, but thoughout Judaea and Samaria and indeed to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1: 8).
Then Jesus lifted up his hands and affectionately blessed them, as he must have done so many times before. And so he leaves them to enjoy his peace, not sad, but full of joy, so full of joy that they felt they had to be continually in the Temple "praising God".
Surely they invite us, today especially, to join them, to rejoice in our Blessed Lord's incarnate life and in his love for each one of us, and to praise God for all his blessings.