Today, in our diocese, we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension. In other words, we celebrate the time in Christ’s life when, after Resurrecting, He spoke His parting words to His disciples and ascended up into the clouds, taken up into Heaven and away from their sight.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot more about what the disciples must have felt. This man who had been their partner, leader, and friend for three years had just disappeared. All the comfort of living in the light of His presence and being shown so concretely the path ahead of them had now vanished. Sure, He had said that it was good He was going back to Heaven. But I can’t help but think there must have been this hole in their hearts. He was just… gone. That was it. This man they had hoped, at least at one point, would kick out the Romans and set up a kingdom for 1000 years had now left them after three. And what may have been even more surprising, He left them in charge of carrying on His mission – of spreading the Gospel and His kingdom and making more disciples. Hadn’t Peter (the head of their band now) just denied even knowing Jesus a few weeks ago? Wasn’t this the same group of men that scattered when their Shepherd was taken into custody and crucified?
And yet Jesus’ words at the Last Supper were these: “…I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go.” And why? “For if I do not go, the Advocate [i.e., the Holy Spirit] will not come to you.” In other words, if Jesus didn’t go, the disciples couldn’t grow. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Something new had to happen in them. And it wasn’t going to happen if they were constantly leaning on what they could see right in front of them. This charismatic figure who had wooed them to this new faith had to be let go of, in a way, so that He could live in them more fully through the third person of the Trinity. He had to leave so that He could be with them, deep in their hearts, forever.
This has meant a lot more to me lately because our parish has been going through some of the same emotions with our two priests. One of them, Fr. Lee, has been taken up to Heaven, so to speak. He died not too long ago and left a large hole in the parish. Our other priest has been whisked away for what has been called health reasons. Our two priests who had been part of the warp and woof of our community, and who were dearly loved, were gone within weeks of each other. We have an interim priest who is discharging his duties faithfully, but still, our other two had really been instrumental in making our parish the vibrant, life-filled place that it is today. I’ve heard some in our parish describe their emotions of abandonment and loss. We don’t really know when or if our priest will come back to us.
The situation could be multiplied outward. I remember another congregation where a pastor who led his congregation for years and years felt called to another on the other side of the country. Again, it left a gigantic hole. Maybe it’s the close relative who dies prematurely or the close friend who has to move away for a job or the mentor or parent who has passed away or the move you have to make to a new area, needing to make new friends and new connections in a foreign place. You wonder where your foundation is any more. You feel like it’s crumbled underneath you.
But has it? “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go.” We don’t talk about the spiritual discipline of detachment in Christian circles much anymore – that ability to hold what you have with a light touch and an open hand, because you know the only one who is going to constantly be there for you is God and the only thing that will constantly be there for you is Heaven. I suppose the cultural sickness of our age isn’t so much about having trouble holding on to people as it is connecting with them – learning how to form community. But it’s important to hold that ability to form bonds of friendship and love while at the same time learning not to be dependant on them. If, God-forbid, the Lord really pulls your carpet out from under you and takes away from you the people who have been pillars in your life, can you still look to the future with a smile on your face? Can you believe that it’s still going to work out? More than that, can you believe that things will in fact be better for you? That what God needs to do in your life and what He wants to open your heart to simply can’t happen or come to you with you leaning on that friend, that parent, that priest, that spouse, that city, that job, those coworkers, that everything?
Sometimes God needs to take what is good and matters so much to us away to give us what is better. If you are having a hard time believing that, believe me, I’m not the best at believing this either. But I’ll tell you what, if you’re up for it, lift you’re cup with me, let’s clink them together in the meantime and say, with whatever faith we can muster, “Here’s to whatever comes.” Who knows? It might just knock our socks off.