Ascension-Pentecost: Good-byes As Blessings
The Church calendar ends up the Easter season celebrating 2 feasts of what you might call “blessed good-byes, or better, “good-byes that keep on giving.” And that is the feast of the Ascension today – and then next week, Pentecost.
Both of them feature Jesus saying good-byes to the disciples, “I’ll no longer be with you [present to you] as I have been.”) But they are good-byes with a promise of a fuller return, of an ever fuller presence.
For sure, the farewells must have saddened the disciples, (“Where are you going; can we come there too?” [Jn 13:36]) But in the parting, Jesus says a very memorable, touching, and maybe even puzzling thing. “If I don’t leave you, the Advocate/Comforter (i.e., my own Spirit) can’t be with you in this new and fuller way.” [Jn 16:7]. And so we have a good-bye here that’s wrenching at first, but a good-bye that in time comes back and keeps on giving.
When you step back to look at that, you can see something of a similar pattern that occasionally shows up in our own lives; i.e., the kinds of good-byes that, after they’re over, keep on giving.
And so for sure, all serious leave-takings are hard and sharp and raw at the time they happen; e.g., the death of loved one. Some of them stay hard, because for instance of bitterness toward the departed, or disappointment in oneself over the relationship that was.
But there are other good-byes which, as the saying goes, “leave the blessing” – and do so long after the departure.
Think of a parent whose death was devastating at the time for their children. But then after a while, the rawness of it wears off some; it softens, and it gradually turns more benevolent, and even warm.
And so for instance, those times some years after your parents’ death, when the memories of them now come to you as brighter and life-giving and even funny. Over the months and years, the flavor of these flashbacks has somehow turned from bitter to sweet, from things that crushed to things that now lift and sustain. The good-byes, awful at the time, now come back to actually give again, and keep on giving. Felt initially as curses, they’ve somehow turned to blessings.
These kinds of experiences give us a little insight into what Jesus meant in all his words of leave-taking (e.g., “I am going away, but I will come back to you [Jn 14:28]; “I have much more to tell you, but you can’t take it in now. But when my Spirit comes, He/She will guide you in all truth.” [Jn 16: 1].
But this reflection on blessings coming from a deceased parent can also shine some light on the kinds of good-byes you and I would want to give.
For sure there are the lesser types. There’s the pathetic kind of the older person who does everything to cling to his youth, and just can’t take in the diminishments of aging. Then there’s the bitter farewell, the kind in which someone leaves the scene holding on so tightly to resentments that these grudges come to stamp our memory of the deceased one.
But finally, there’s the good-bye that’s a blessing, one that has some of the spirit and life of the good-bye that Jesus Himself is giving here at his Ascension and Pentecost; i.e., the kind that keeps on giving.
Ronald Rohlheiser, in his book, Sacred Fire [p. 312] related an experience at the funeral of a woman who was much loved by family, friends, and community – and who might well have been in the Vincentian Family. She was one of those who took care of her own and also helped take care of others. After communion, each of her 4 children stood up to give a short eulogy about how good she was. But it was the youngest daughter who really caught the congregation when she addressed these words directly to her own siblings and to her nieces and nephews, the woman’s grandchildren. She said:
“Our mother, your grandmother, was a great woman. But we really don’t know that yet, but someday we will. Someday we will know this because she will come to us, she will come back to each of us, in her own way, respecting who we are, respecting what our lives are, — and we will get her,
– get who she really was, get what she gave us in her life and how she died, get how blessed we were to have had her, and get that we have this exceptional, wonderful person as our mom and grandmother! In receiving her spirit we will drink more deeply from her depth.”
This is the on-going kind of good-bye, the blessing-farewell, the kind of good-bye that keeps on giving. Raw at first, it mellows with time, then blossoms, and finally comes to nourish. As the writer puts it, it tells us that one is not only to give away one’s life, but is even asked to give away one’s death (as did this loving grandmother.).
Ascension/Pentecost: two feasts of Farewell. But the kind of farewells that are filled with promise, the promise of a new and different kind of presence that turns out to be even more life-giving than before.
And so, looking from this ledge of how our farewells can turn to blessings, of how our sadnesses can turn into new resolve and energy, we hear again the words of the Gospel:
“So then, the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to the disciples, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.
But they went forth, and preached His Good News everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” [Mk 16:19-20]
Ascension and Pentecost give us many lessons. One of them is to teach us that there are farewells that can turn to blessings, types of good-byes we can give that keep on giving.