Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel entitled YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN. It was published in 1940. It describes the strange sensation of trying to go back home, after an extended absence.
One may think this is not much of an ordeal or a challenge, anticipating that the sensation of familiarity will dominate the experience. But such is seldom the case, especially if the absence has been over a number of years, and if it takes place in the setting of a forever changing scenario that is so typical of life in the United States, where change is happening all the time, at multiple levels of our experience.
The word “familiarity”, of course, is itself related to the similar word, “family”. Something that is family-related is or has become “familiar” to us. For nothing is more “familiar” than “family”. Nonetheless, in a sense, one can never go back to family, as we recall it 20 or 30 years ago. The house in which one lived then was also a “home”. But, of course, not all houses are homes even if some houses don’t change, or, at first sight, after a long absence, don’t seem to have changed. To all intents and purposes the house one recalls from 25 years ago may still be standing when one visits it years later, and notes it occupying the same lot on the block as it did when we left. And this is so, even if it has been repainted in the intervening years, and the big maple tree that dominated the front yard is gone, and a different kind of fence now encloses the back yard. For one can recognize it immediately. But that may be the extent to which an identity can be noted over this extended period of time.
For, should one have the opportunity to enter the house, a strange sensation overcomes one’s experience. In the front room, all the familiar furniture has been replaced. Painting has replaced wallpaper. The former carpeting has given way to throw rugs. The wall pictures now depict totally different scenes. The familiar odors of years ago, emanating from the kitchen, are no longer permeating the dining room area. One feels like a stranger here, in one’s former house, which, back then, had also been a home.
For a home is made up more of people than of furniture or décor. But all the old familiar faces are gone. There are new occupants now, who may be quite cordial and welcoming. But their house no longer comprises the home that was once here. The home is gone. And one’s awareness of this grows as one soon discovers that the neighbors on either side of the house are strangers, different from those who used to live there. And if the opportunity offers to explore the old neighborhood, it dawns on us that one can never go home again. The old barber shop is gone, as is the gas station on the corner. The familiar theater has been replaced by a shopping center, and the school one attended has been enlarged and upgraded.
And so the realization sinks in: one can’t go home again. Things have changed. Jesus Himself underwent a similar experience in His time. For He was brought up in Nazareth by Mary and Joseph until He was thirty years of age, when He left home and began His public ministry in Judea and other parts of Galilee. He was still identified as a Nazorean (Mt.26-71), perhaps because of His accent. He was an almost instant success wherever He went, preaching and performing miracles, and gained great popularity. Then the opportunity arose for Him, now quite a success, to go back home again. This He did, and, entered the familiar synagogue where He had prayed and studied the bible. But when He rose to read the bible and apply a passage to Himself, there was an instant reaction, a very unfavorable one, (Lk 4.16-30), and Jesus learned that one can’t go home again. He seems never to have returned there again.
A somewhat similar experience awaits us, if not in this life, then in the life to come (2 Cor 5, 1, ff.). For we believe, on the word of God, that there will be a new heaven and a new earth awaiting us, at some point in the future—no longer in time, but in eternity. We don’t know where this might be. But the “place”, if it’s appropriate to use this word for this new setting, will likely be more like “home” than the house to which we may have returned on one occasion, because, even though a lot of changes await us in our future habitat, it will still remind us of “home” as it used to be, for all the familiar faces from years ago will be there to greet us. In this sense, it is quite possible to go back home again. We won’t mind the change of place (“I go to prepare a place for you”, Jn 14.2-3)) because the presence of the faces that made the place of old “home” is again before us.
Jesus too had this wonderful experiences at His Ascension into heaven. He was, at long last, able to go home again and be with His Father in heaven.