The gospel readings from Easter to the Ascension depict Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples. And so much more.
One of the beautiful things about working in a high school is that we get to celebrate the natural beginnings and endings that a school year provides. In August each year, we all get new school supplies, class schedules, hopes, and goals. And every year in May, we get to experience a sense of closure and the satisfaction that comes with knowing you were a part of the story of some amazing young people.
Of course, that satisfaction comes with its share of sadness too. When endings come dressed in caps and gowns, then it’s time to goodbye to another graduating class.
The Nature of Goodbyes
One thing I’ve learned about saying goodbye is that it’s never all we say. We seem to have a human need to always say more. The same students graduating high school this week were told “goodbye” by their parents on the first day of kindergarten. That goodbye was probably also followed by instructions for obeying the teacher, sharing with the other kids, and remembering to flush.
When those same students went off to summer camp the first time, “goodbye” then most likely came with advice about how to deal with homesickness, bug bites, and mean kids. And when these same kids start college in the fall, they will hear lots of goodbyes along with “show up to class and study hard” as well as “be careful with the debit card and go easy on the pizza.” It’s human nature; we can’t take our leave of someone important to us, someone in our care, without some parting advice.
At my school, we have about a thousand different activities and events designed to say goodbye to our graduating seniors, but the goodbye I like the most is the simplest one. And it’s not just for our seniors. Every student hears it on the PA during morning announcements every single day: “Remember who we are.”
A previous principal of our school started repeating that line when she signed off of the announcements because “Remember who you are” was something her mother always said to her. Before she would leave the house, her mother wanted her to remind her that she was good and beautiful and loved beyond measure. That she should trust her gut and honor her values. That she was enough just as she was. And this principal wanted our students to have that same reminder every day.
Between Easter and the Ascension, the gospel readings feature Jesus preparing to say goodbye to his friends. And just like us, he can’t simply say “goodbye.” He has some important parting words. To me, it sounds like another way of telling them, “Remember who you are.”
Recently, we’ve heard Jesus say that just as the Father loves him completely, he too loves his disciples. And once he’s gone, they are to love others in the same way. We hear him in prayer asking his Father to protect those he loves so that they can spread this love to others. In the last hours before returning to the Father, when Jesus sought to distill the crux of his entire message and ministry into a few short sentences that the sometimes slow-to-get-it disciples might remember, he talked about love. The Father’s love, his love for them, and the need to love each other. Just love.
Another way of describing this is to say that Jesus’ parting words are the same ones that we use at my school: Remember who you are.
What’s In a Name?
I believe that the source of all life is not a supernatural, individual spirit-being in the sky making choices about our lives. I prefer Paul Tillich’s explanation of God as the “Ground of Being.” It’s hard to come up with an appropriate name to give it. Divine Force, Ultimate Reality, Sacred Source, or Life with a capital “L” all seem a little too Birkenstocks-and-psychedelics to me. And the terms used by non-dual philosophies, like Isness or Suchness, are too M.C. Escher for my taste. But the traditional term, God, isn’t without its problems either. For millennia, people have equated that term with the individual spirit-being in the sky. As I have written repeatedly, I think Christianity’s biggest problem is language.
But let’s go ahead and call this “Ground of Being” God. I think we all come from God, live and move and have our being in God, and return to God after we die. To use a common metaphor, if God is the ocean, we are the waves. We are one individual, unique instance of “ocean” that has its moment to crash upon the shore, and then returns to the depths from which it came. But it’s all ocean, all the time.
If that’s the case, then our marching orders – just like those given to the disciples before Jesus departed – are to remember who you are. The word “re-member” literally means to put back together again.
Love is another doozy of a loaded word, but it’s the best one we have to describe how we reconnect our little waves with the larger ocean. I think that is why a warm hug is so comforting and why sex is so pleasurable. Love feels good because it’s who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going.
That’s what I hear Jesus telling his disciples along with his “goodbye.” Since love is who you are, it’s all you need to do. Remember who you are, and the rest will take care of itself. Not a bad commencement address.