Sunday, June 5, 2011

“... until then, dear Brother, until then, farewell.”

There’s a good chance that among the readership of this blog, there are a few who could readily relate the title of this post in its particular context. They are the Freemasons and, perhaps, their relatives, who would have recognized these words as the last words spoken by the Master at the conclusion of a Masonic Funeral Service. 

"... until then, dear Brother, until then, farewell".

These words are addressed to the departed Brother and it is his assurance that his separation from his brethren is temporary and that ultimately, they all shall be gathered to the “celestial lodge above, that house, not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”.

This bidding to the departed Brother induces us to reflect on an often overlooked awareness that death is not the end of life; that while it marks the end of our earthly toil, it also is the occasion when we will be translated from this imperfect to that all perfect, glorious and eternal habitation and precisely for this reason, this form of leave taking ought not be a painful goodbye.

The reality, however, is that “goodbyes” often lead to an almost instantaneous collapse of whatever binds the two “persona” prior to the disconnect, hence, goodbyes are often painful.

Indeed, we do experience quite a number of painful goodbyes; ranging from an emotionally wrenching occasion such as the demise of our loved ones to a simple and uncomplicated ones like what a two-year old grandchild feels when she gets “separated” from her grandma after having been baby-sat by her.  And while she could not articulate yet what sadness is all about, the child hearing “Bye” changes her mood to a definitely sad one. 

Another example of the display of the relatively sad character of “goodbyes” happens between a mother and her son on the latter’s first day of school. Leaving home and only away a few yards, the child turns around and in teary eyes; gently says in an almost inaudible tone of voice: “”Bye”. And Mom does the same. “Go on, Honey. You’ll be all right. Mom will always be here. See you later.” Goodbyes could be painful.

I’m sure most of you have other similar leave-taking experiences in your different circles of love; of the many times when someone you love has to go away, or you have to go away. There are many times when, for whatever reason, someone has to move on, thereby irrevocably altering a relationship. In most cases, they were painful, leaving you feeling empty, and suddenly, your world seemed to have collapsed and it would seem that there’s no more reason to continue living after severing a relationship you’ve hoped will last.

Today is the 7th Sunday of Easter but the Propers we are using are those of Ascension Day.  The reason for the change in lessons is quite obvious. Our parish, The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, is named in honor of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ and it is but fitting that we celebrate that feast today, moving it from its original date, Thursday last.

A similar story of what could have been a painful separation forms the basis of what we are celebrating today and by that I mean something heart-warming suddenly turned out to be quite the opposite.

To put this in context, remember that the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke talks about what happened on “the first day of the week”, the Day of the Resurrection, when Jesus was raised from the dead. It also talks about the delight of the two disciples who were on their way to Emmaus when the Resurrected Christ showed himself again, very much alive. It was there that the Resurrected Christ broke bread with them. The story thus far is all full of mixed feeling of fear and disbelief and gladness, although the latter seems to overcome the former, especially that part when the two disciples returned to Jerusalem and broke the news to the other disciples that “The Lord has risen indeed”.

I would like to believe that what filled the disciples was utter gladness as in their having regained something back which they hoped would last and never lose again. But to their disbelief, just as when they were keeping their hopes high, the Resurrected Christ tells them something else.

Jesus says: ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (NRSV Luke 24:44-49)

Just hearing the words “so stay here”, you know already something’s coming up; something which most likely will not involve you or something you were not ready to hear. And indeed it happened.

Luke describes it this way. “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (NRSV Luke 24: 50-51)

The Resurrected Christ ascended to the Father up into heaven and he lifted up his hands, blessed them and vanished from their sight

With those imageries of separation alluded to earlier, I know that many of you would readily say:  “You know what? They were not as bad as I thought they’d be.” Most of you would agree that while goodbyes could be seriously painful, it isn’t the end of the story. After the extreme angst and the throbbing heartache of a painful goodbye have worn off, you experience your loved one’s absence in a different way.

These past days and on to the next, there’d be a proliferation of school graduations and today we celebrate our own graduates. I’m sure that in their respective Commencement Exercises, there’d be a lot of biddings of farewell. While some maybe “painful” as in their not seeing anymore their BFFs; and while that parting will leave others really feeling empty, after a while, well, they’ll discover that the world did not end after all.

And so it was with the disciples who were left by the Ascended Christ. I’m sure they felt lost and abandoned and we could see this in the account we read in the Book of Acts.

“While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (NRSV Acts 1: 10-11)

I’m sure that their “gazing up towards heaven” also included gaping of jaws and their sad look of disbelief. But then we know that it didn’t last forever. They were in fact eagerly waiting for the Spirit that has been promised them. Yes, there were smiles on their cheeks as they waited for the descent of the Holy Spirit (referred to as “Holy Prodder” in my last blog).

The Feast of Ascension reminds us not only about the ascending of Jesus to the Father but more importantly about His having been set free in order to continue the work he has begun. This is where the joy and gladness come in, knowing that Christ’s ascension was not a total “leaving” but an assurance that indeed he will be with them, and with us and we all are to be witnesses “from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth”

The beauty of today’s celebration is the turning of the pain of goodbye into the assurance of a better tomorrow. It’s about the mystery of saying goodbye, when goodbye isn’t really goodbye at all, but only love’s way of taking on a different form so that it can be present in a way that’s much deeper and more lasting.

That too is the mystery of the Ascension. Yes, it is about Christ’s going away so that we all could fully receive the gift of the Spirit.  Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday and faith communities will be celebrating the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit.

In the meantime, be comforted that Christ’s ascension was not a total departure nor was it a mark of the end of our Lord’s ministry but a sign for us to carry it on since it has now been entrusted to our care by virtue of our baptism and our willful decision to follow him.

Having said this, I now say: “until then, my good friends, until my next post, farewell”.

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