I’ve got ‘goodbyes’ on my mind these days. Here are some of these goodbyes: today we read about Jesus saying goodbye to his friends after the Last Supper. In addition, last Thursday was Ascension Day when Jesus says goodbye again to his followers. In a couple of months we will leave Jeff in Spokane to start college and our family is anticipating a goodbye that will be both difficult and joyous.
Today’s Gospel takes place right after the Last Supper and Jesus knows that he will die on the cross very soon. He despairs about leaving his friends to their dangerous task of spreading his word. The group shares one last meal where Jesus entreats them to remember him in the future whenever they break bread and drink wine. After dinner everyone settles down and he begins to speak. He just goes on and on and on. He tries to tell them everything they might need to know after he is gone. Then He turns to God and asks this: “Protect them, O God,” Jesus prays. “Protect them as I have protected them, so that they do not fall away in the face of this challenge. Protect them and guard their faith so that they can love as I have loved, so they can welcome as I have welcomed, so they can abide in you and abide with others as I have.”
There is such tenderness to this moment. I imagine the eyes of Jesus shining with tears as he looks over the faces of his friends. He prays to his Father with such earnestness. Can’t you imagine his worry and love for them? He knows their task will be difficult, He knows they will face huge challenges. How powerful it must be for the apostles to feel the great love Jesus has for them as they listen in as He prays for them!
I love this quote by George Eliot; “Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.” This parting of Jesus and the apostles is not Shakespeare’s “sweet sorrow”. His upcoming suffering and death brings such acute awareness to the love he has for these friends.
Christ dies, Christ is resurrected, then Christ ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of God. Now this past Thursday was Ascension Day, which is an important holy day. The biblical references to Christ’s ascension are quite brief: he pretty much tells his followers to take his message out into the world then he rises up into the sky, as if on an escalator.
There are many paintings of this moment. Often, Jesus is depicted as he floats upward on a cloud, surrounded by cute little baby angels, with his right hand extended as he blesses his friends stuck on earth. In other images Jesus looks like he is hiking up a very steep mountain to heaven. My favorite images are when the only part of Jesus we can see are his feet hanging beneath a cloud high in the sky.
This time when Jesus says goodbye to his friends he knows he won’t be resurrected to walk alongside them again. He seems a lot less worried though because he knows that very quickly, the Holy Spirit will descend upon them (on Pentecost) and they will be well cared for. As Jesus ascends, He isn’t leaving his friends, they are just entering into a new relationship with Him.
I was very close to my mom, Catherine. She suffered a great deal for three years of cancer and yet, as seems to happen with most deaths, losing her was a great shock. But I remember very clearly that on the very night she died, I was overcome by the sensation that now that she was no longer in her body, there was nothing that could come between us. Her absence turned into a warm presence. We were closer than ever. It was profoundly comforting. I bet the apostles felt this with Jesus as he ascended.
“Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.” I felt that about my mother and I find now that I feel that about parting from Jeff as he leaves for college.
Like Jesus with the apostles, I want to impart every bit of wisdom I have on him before he leaves. Which would explain why, recently I felt such an urgent need to teach him how to make apple crisp. I laboriously showed him how to chop the apples, mix the oatmeal, butter and sugar, bake and serve with vanilla ice cream. Now honestly, what are the odds that he’ll need to make a vanilla crisp while living in the dorms at Gonzaga? That’s why I haven’t insisted he learn how to bake bread… but I want to.
I Googled “parting wisdom for college students” and I tell you, most of the advice was about studying and doing laundry. Not what I was looking for! I know that the best I can do for Jeff is to bless him and to pray that God holds him close and guides him. So, as Jesus did for his followers, I will also pray for my son. “Lord, protect Jeff as we have protected him, so that he will not fall away in the face of challenges. Protect him and guard his faith so that he can love as Jesus loved, so he can abide in you and abide with others.”
As we will celebrate next week on Pentecost, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to watch over us, to guide us everyday. Jesus could say goodbye to his followers with confidence because he knew they wouldn’t be alone. We know that we have the Holy Spirit present in our lives and I will pray that Jeff hears the guidance of that Spirit as he moves into the world to do the work he is given to do.