On Saying Goodbye
(Acts 1:1-11; Eph.4:1-13; Mk.16:15-20)
Some people hate saying goodbye. Changing jobs, moving house or farewelling a loved one simply means sorrow to them.
What many don’t realise, however, is that whenever we say ‘goodbye’ we’re actually invoking God. Why? Because ‘goodbye’ is a 16th Century contraction of the expression ‘God be with you’. Similarly, ‘adieu’ means ‘go with God’. [i]
Many also forget that every goodbye marks a new beginning. As Mitch Albom writes in his book The Five People You Meet in Heaven, ‘… all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.’ [ii]
In our first reading today, Jesus farewells his disciples; it’s time to return to his Father. His Ascension to heaven marks an end and a beginning, both for Jesus and for his disciples.
Certainly, it’s the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. After three years teaching his followers and planting the seeds of his Father’s kingdom all over Palestine, it’s time to move on.
And so it’s a new beginning. By leaving this world, Jesus is no longer confined to a specific place and time. From heaven, he can rule the world and make himself available to everyone, everywhere, all the time. How? By working through the Church, through the sacraments (especially the Holy Eucharist) and by penetrating deep into our hearts and minds.
For the disciples, it’s the end of their three-year traineeship, and the beginning of a new life as Jesus commissions them to proclaim his Gospel all around the world.
But as Jesus ascends heavenward, the disciples stand there, staring into the sky. They don’t know where to begin. Then two angels appear, saying: ‘why are you standing there, looking at the sky?’ In other words: what are you waiting for? Get going. There’s work to do.
So, they leave the mountain and head for the city.
Now, Jesus’ Ascension marks a new beginning for us, too, because we are his disciples today. Jesus is calling us to rise above our ordinary lives, to lift up our hearts, minds and lives so that we might continue his unfinished work.
Bishop Robert Barron says that if Caesar, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Churchill were still striding the world stage, no-one else would have the courage to enter the game. That’s why Jesus leaves, he says, so that we might act in his name and in accord with his spirit.
Barron also says that it’s those people who are most focused on the things of heaven who do the most good here below: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, St John Paul II. And he adds that those who pray most intently are most effective in doing such work.
But leaving one life for another can be a wrenching experience. I remember leaving home at the age of 17, and weeping that very first night. I had no idea what lay ahead of me. I had no idea how I would make a living. But I knew I had to leave home.
Jesus understands all this. That’s why on several occasions he tries to reassure his disciples: ‘It’s better for you that I go away. You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy’ (Jn.16:20). ‘If I don’t go away, you will be unable to receive my spirit’ (Jn.16:7). And ‘Don’t cling to me. I must ascend’ (Jn.20:17).
In Matthew’s Gospel, just before Jesus tells his disciples to go and teach all nations, Matthew says that ‘some hesitated’. Why did they hesitate? Were they fearful? Did they doubt their own abilities?
They needn’t have, because in our second reading St Paul says that Jesus gives each person the gifts they need to do his work. In 1 Corinthians he lists some of these special graces: the gift of tongues, strong faith, healing, miracles, wisdom, knowledge and discernment (1Cor.12:8-10,28-30).
So, how do we transition from a sad goodbye to a new beginning?
Perhaps we can learn from Arthur Ashe (1943-96), the legendary American tennis champion. He had a heart attack at the age of 36. In 1983, during heart surgery, he was given HIV-infected blood. Sadly, it destroyed his tennis career, but it also opened the door to an important new life as an advocate for HIV/AIDS sufferers.
Arthur Ashe once said: ‘Happiness keeps you sweet; trials keep you strong; sorrows keep you human; failure keeps you humble and success keeps you glowing, but only faith keeps you going.’
And how might we begin our new life?
He said: ‘Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can.’ [iii]
God will do the rest.
[i] Merrill Perlman, Of God and Goodbyes, Columbia Journalism Review, July 11, 2016 https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/god_goodbye_adieu_toodles_dickens.php#:~:text=You%20might%20spell%20it%20%E2%80%9Cgood,in%20shorthand%2C%20and%20partly%20by
[ii] Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Sphere, London, 2003.
[iii] Arthur Ashe, Days of Grace: A Memoir. Ballantine Books: NY, 1994. https://www.amazon.com/Days-Grace-Memoir-Arthur-Ashe/dp/0345386817