May 28, 2017
A couple of weeks ago I flew into New Orleans for the funeral of a good friend, Fr. John Arnone. His death, at the age of 49, was a personal loss for me, but it was clear from the line at the visitation that extended, literally, for blocks down Carollton Avenue, and for the 1400-plus people who gathered for the funeral the next day that his death affected the lives of a lot more than me. Endings are not easy and we’ve all been though them and will go through them again.
Often, endings are initiated by difficult things: death, divorce, loss of a job. But sometimes endings are initiated by good things: graduations and selling the house, winning the championship or New Year’s Eve. All good things, but they also signify endings. We realize those graduates aren’t our little kids anymore, and selling the house means saying good-bye to a place that has been home; championships mean we won’t be on the court with the same teammates ever again; every flip of the calendar means another year has passed. Each and every one of these endings, whether initiated by a good thing or a bad thing, involves grief. Grief takes on all sorts of dimensions in our lives and it will go through its own stages, but no matter how long or short it holds us, it is still grief.
So in that sense we can relate to the disciples, for they, too, had to say “good-bye” to the Jesus they knew. It was an ending; they would have known grief. They had left their former lives to follow him, but now what? Do they go back to what they had been doing and who they had been, or do they stay the course? They listened to his teaching and followed him from town to town healing the sick; they ate meals with him. Now what? Where do they go now? They befriended and loved him but everything is different now.
But there came a time for the disciples, as it does for us, that grief will slowly but surely be transformed. We don’t wish our beloved to come back to a world of pain or suffering; we want them to have the fullness of life with God. We want our kids to grow up and move on and out (and not come back, at least for a while). A new house becomes a new home. We don’t wish the old job back; the new one provides such greater opportunities. New things bring new opportunities; new places bring new friends. We find peace, and more than peace, in trusting that resurrection always follows death, and that new things unfold only after the old things have passed, and that joy will someday follow grief.
But it’s that in-between time, that time between sadness and joy – that’s what is tough, sometimes tougher than the crisis or moment of loss itself. We don’t know what to call that time; we don’t know how to name it; we don’t know how it will shape us in the end. But we know that something is happening. Something is changing. Something is getting us ready for that which is to come.
That’s one of the reasons there are so many different stories and dimensions to what we celebrate today in the Feast of the Ascension. Some of the gospel writers don’t mention it at all. Some of them place the Ascension at the same time as the Resurrection. Other writers place it at Pentecost, forty or fifty days later. Others just describe it as “a day”. Even the Church hasn’t quite figured out where to put the Feast! (Some of the Church celebrates it on the 40th Day of Easter, Ascension Thursday; some of the Church celebrates it, as we do in most of this country, on the following weekend.)
We know it is not meant to be taken in a hyper-literal way, as if on the 40th day Jesus zoomed into the sky. Rather, it is a statement of faith that tries to capture this part of the Easter story: that something changed with Jesus and his relationship to those who followed him, bringing them (and us) into yet a different relationship with him. It was as if he was still with them but also with his Father, being connected with them in the same way but yet a different way.
That’s the thing about what we celebrate at the Ascension - it’s hard to capture, it’s difficult to name, it’s challenging to understand, it’s not easy to describe. But we know what it is. We call it hope. Hope. Grief, no matter what its form or origin, will always surrender to hope. Hope that is born in faith.