Ascension: Saying Goodbye

The Reverend Margaret Legg

How do you say goodbye? Lightly? "Toodles!" as the vicar is wont to say! To my grandson as he set off for work: "Bye, have a good day". Formally: "Thank you for a lovely lunch, goodbye", or do you slip away without a word? It depends on the circumstances of course.

It’s very personal, particularly the big goodbyes, the ones that happen when a child goes to school for the first time, when a colleague we’re fond of leaves for another job, or a loved one prepares to die. Some people are very expressive. Hugs and tears and anecdotes. Others are deadpan, keeping it all in.

Many people make sure they have plenty of time and say their goodbyes beforehand, when emotions are not so highly charged. This is what’s happening in our gospel. Jesus is coming to the end of a long farewell to the disciples at the last supper. Indeed it’s sometimes known as ‘the long goodbye’, Jesus farewell discourse. He tells them things won’t be easy without him, but they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit. He rounds it all off with a prayer for his followers, including a prayer for their protection. Specifically a prayer for their protection from the evil one. Jesus was well aware of the dangers and evils of the world – he’d come across them often enough. His disciples, listening to him, went on to face harsh treatment too – Christianity is not a cosy club – but Jesus had confidence in them to hand on his teaching and to continue his work. He has confidence in us too, to keep his message alive and live it out in the world around us.

Evil comes in many guises, not least from within us - our own weakness at times to confront and challenge bullying, lying, cheating, and also more visibly, in the world around us – in the poverty that we see in the homeless sleeping on our streets; in the surge in knife crime, in the abuse of social media sites.

Jesus wants us to engage with the world. He tells his disciples they do not belong to the world, but nevertheless we, like them, live within it. Instead of closing our minds to the poverty, violence, loneliness that surround us, he wants us to expand our thoughts and attitudes, use our imagination creatively to be effective, confident disciples, continuing his work. We may not be in a position to tackle the underlying causes, but we can at least help treat the symptoms. We can give generously to the food bank crates at the supermarket check outs; we can teach our children about what can be a very thin line between having a home and homelessness – one parent, asked directly and persistently by her children ‘Why are they sleeping in that doorway?’ helped them organise a sleepover with their friends specifically to raise money for a homeless charity.

Where does that confidence come from? We can be confident because we believe Jesus’ words that once we were the Father’s and that at the end we will return to the Father. Ascension is the reverse of the Incarnation. At Christmas divinity took on our humanity; at Ascension, humanity is taken into divinity. We do not belong to the world, but we are in it and engage with it, all the time having our sights on that other world, knowing there is a place for us in heaven, us in our frailty and weakness.

Last week I finally got to Istanbul, a city I’ve longed to visit since studying O level history – and that dates me! Anyone who has been there and visited the historic sights will know that it’s impossible to avoid the admission queues – unless you’re prepared to pay extra!!
Queuing to get in to the Topkapi Palace, I didn’t recognise the language of the couple behind me, so I asked them where they were from. Bosnia! We talked about the war and how the perpetrators were being brought to justice – remember Ratko Madlic, the so-called ‘butcher of Bosnia’? Many are still at large, sighed the couple, but, one of them commented quietly yet firmly, ‘there is a higher justice’.

Saying goodbye takes on a new seriousness when we read of the acid attacks, the muggings, the dangerous driving (and cycling) on our streets. Will they come back safely? When I said goodbye to my grandson as he left for work I wasn’t at all worried. Well, he’s only 2; his office was at the back of the garden and he was going there in his toy tractor. Complete with trailer. He’d be back in a minute. Actually it was a matter of seconds, because he’d forgotten his keys!! That will be Raife before you can say Jack Robinson!

But I heard a talk a few days ago from someone who left home for a short work project abroad and didn’t return for 5 years. He was kidnapped and held hostage in a world completely alien to him and yet he is living proof that faith really does comfort and strengthen us. Terry Waite was taken hostage in Lebanon in 1987; he spent 4 years in solitary confinement. How did he hold on to his sanity, blindfolded, unshackled for only 10 minutes every 24 hours. Faith, he said, was one of the supports in the mental framework he constructed to hold the darkness of despair at bay and to keep the light of sanity shining. His prayer was not ‘Get me out God, I can’t bear this’, because of the danger of sinking into sentimentality, regret, negativity and depression. His prayer was for the grace and strength to get through the day. And he did get through the day, 1763 days to be precise.

So when we say goodbye, we can do so with confidence, because we have within us the protection of our faith from the evil that may beset us. Perhaps unfelt, but nevertheless there, deep within us. You will be saying many goodbyes to Raife over the years. Not only when he sets off for the office on his tractor – or scooter, but when he goes to school, to university, to travel round the world. Who knows? May he, and all of us, carry with us Jesus’ prayer of protection from the evil one as we journey through life in this world. Amen.