Thursday, 9 May 2013

Ascension Day: Farewells

Ascension Day 2013

The picture I have given you is a typical medieval depiction of the Ascension of Jesus. It is very literal, as
many of these pictures are. Heaven is up there, above the golden dome of the sky, so that is where Jesus is going. In fact he’s nearly gone. Just his feet are still visible, and his footprints remain in the rock from which he has taken off. The disciples and Mary gaze up into the sky, as if they are determined to watch until there is nothing left to see, and we know that even at that point they won’t be able to turn away, but will stand there staring at the point where they last saw him until the angels appear to send them back to Jerusalem. Frankly this sort of picture can look a bit silly to us, but in some ways it is a very accurate picture of how it feels to say goodbye to someone we love.

We’ve probably all stood and waved off a loved one who is going away for a while, perhaps someone we’ll miss, or someone we are worried about. We’ve stood and watched till the car or train is out of sight, as if somehow just trying to take hold of that last glimpse and tuck it away in our minds for safekeeping.  

When that farewell is a more permanent one we are often even more concerned to cling to that final sight of them. When someone dies we treasure the last meeting we had with them, the last letter or phone call, the last words. We often find it hard to deal with the final farewell, the moment when the curtains close around the coffin at the crem, or when it is lowered into the ground. Occasionally I have someone who clings to the coffin, unable to walk away from it, and I can understand that – it just seems all wrong to leave the person they have loved so much there and turn away.

But goodbyes are a part of life. They are unavoidable, and if we don’t manage to deal with them we will find ourselves rooted to the spot, just as these disciples are at this point, unable to get on with the business of living. It’s not just people we struggle to say goodbye to either. Many of us struggle with de-cluttering, keeping loads of things we would be better off shedding, sometimes to the point of pathological hoarding, because we somehow can’t bear to let them go, or perhaps more accurately, can’t bear to let go of what they represent for us.

That’s why Ascension Day matters so much. A very wise priest friend of mine once said to me that it was his favourite day of all, because it’s when “Jesus gets out of the way”. The story we’ve heard tonight makes that plain. The angels who confront the disciples as they gaze into the skies tell them in no uncertain terms that they are wasting their time in doing so. They have work to do so they had better get on and do it. Fortunately they heed the angels, otherwise the message of Jesus might never have made it out of Jerusalem, never mind all the way to this cold damp corner of the earth.

I showed the children at Seal school this same picture this morning, along with some others of children waving goodbye as they went to school , or waving off loved ones at train stations. We talked about the way goodbyes can sometimes feel sad, but we also talked about what it was that helped us when we had to say goodbye. The children, talked about the love and care of those who were still there with them, of having teddy bears to hug, and of having memories to cherish too,. They offered wise words, I think, to all of us who struggle with goodbyes, and I suspect the disciples would have come up with similar advice, albeit couched in different language. They missed Jesus. Of course they did. There must have been many times when they would have loved to have him there to advise them. But they realised that they had each other, and grew to treasure the love they shared. They were strengthened too, by the stories they told – their shared memories, which became our Gospels and  by the rhythms and rituals of faith, - comforting symbols, perhaps not so very different from that teddy bear the children talked about – above all by the sharing of bread and wine. Every time you do this – and they did it often -, know that I am with you, he’d said. In all these things they sensed God’s presence through his Holy Spirit, like Jesus, yet different too, something that was with them wherever they were. None of that could have happened unless Jesus had “got out of the way”, unless they had said their goodbyes and moved on. They discovered in time that however painful it had felt at the time, nothing was really lost.

On this Ascension Day, then, let’s be aware of the goodbyes we need to say, and of God who holds all that we have and all that we are and all that we have been in his hands, all our loves, all our troubles, all our hopes and fears. As we do, let’s remember the message of this day, that it is safe to leave those things in his hands, to get up, face the future and go on.


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