I’ve always hated goodbyes. I know we have to do them; part of life is transitioning out of one thing to another, and that means having to say goodbye. But I don’t like it.
Probably because of my aversion to goodbyes, I read a giant goodbye into this Feast of the Ascension, and I think the apostles are right there with me. I’m sure I can hear their anxiety as they question Jesus: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He won’t clarify that, but he does instruct them specifically not to leave Jerusalem. Why? Probably because they’re edging toward the city limits, ready to get on out of town. Then Jesus gets in his final words, and suddenly, as they watch, he disappears. I wonder if the angels’ reassurance of his return makes them feel better. It doesn’t make me feel better.
However, maybe the Ascension is not about a goodbye after all. Maybe the point of this feast is not that Jesus has gone (because I know that Christ is very much with us). Maybe the point is mission. He sends his followers to be witnesses – in their own backyards and throughout the whole world – and he promises to send them the Spirit. But first he has to ascend and open up a space for them to move forward in mission. His parting is not really a goodbye but rather an invitation to something new.
As I’m writing this, I have to confess I have a song stuck my head: “Closing Time” by Semisonic. I came of age in the nineties, so bear with me.: “Closing Time / Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
Yes, this song describes closing a bar for the night, but it’s about possibilities found in new beginnings. It came out around the time that I was graduating from college. The world loomed a little large at that moment. Recognizing that I couldn’t stay in the familiar but had to venture into the unknown didn’t help me to feel better about doing it.
“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
There can be very real grief with a life transition, even a positive one. When I left my last ministry, the parish gave me a beautiful goodbye party. It was almost too much to take in, and I admit that my goodbyes to people were more like see-you-laters. However, on my last day, I came back at night when no one was around. I sat in my office and reflected on all the students and parishioners who had passed through there, many of them coming to walk with me through their transitions. I thought about the challenges all through my years there. I remembered the tremendous moments of grace. As I invited it all to pass through my mind and heart, I cried my tears and laughed my laughs and thanked God for it all. And then I left. It was time, and I couldn’t stay there anymore. A new beginning was beckoning me to close that door and open another.
Even as we let go and grieve what we need to grieve, we have to move on to the next thing. So, the apostles stay and stare at the sky for a bit. Then they move from that spot and try and trust that the Spirit is coming. It always does. Maybe, because they had seen Jesus risen, this parting is easier than was his crucifixion. I hope so. Now they know that anything is possible with God, and with this closing comes a whole new beginning.
T.S. Eliot expresses this sentiment beautifully in his poem “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets, so I’ll leave you with that:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
by Sister Leslie Keener, CDP
Sister Leslie Keener, CDP is the director of God Space, a community-building spirituality ministry in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. She’s a Sister of Divine Providence with a Masters in Ministry and a Certificate in Spiritual Direction and Retreats from Creighton University. She directs retreats, meets with people for spiritual direction, and serves as the vocation director for her community. She also serves on the Coordinating Council of Spiritual Directors International. She enjoys music, meaningful conversations, and dancing.