Acts 20:28-38; Ps 68:28-36; John 17:11b-19
Goodbye. What a simple word. What a simple, mundane, commonplace, disquieting, difficult, dreadful, shattering little word. Goodbye.
As a general rule, we humans are not fond of endings. Even when we ponder our plans for the future with genuine excitement, we can’t help but drag our feet at the threshold. We would like to step forth confidently on a new adventure with our left foot while keeping our right foot firmly planted on its old familiar turf. But life doesn’t work that way. Whether we like it or not, endings happen to all of us, and Goodbye is their calling card. Goodbye is what we say both to those we adore and to those we barely know when we walk out of a room or walk out of their lives entirely. Goodbye is the last turn of the key in the lock as we leave one home for the next. Goodbye is the acknowledgement of a distinct past and a distinct, separate future.
When these moments of change come, we are faced with the task of acknowledging the break in continuity. Speaking broadly, it is considered good manners to say Goodbye and not just slip out when no one is looking. But more often than not, when we are the ones taking our leave, facing our loved ones and saying Goodbye can be more than we can bear. How often have we heard someone say, “When it’s my time, I hope I go without warning. Just here one minute, gone the next.” This is frequently billed as the (quite rational) desire not to suffer or burden one’s family with a drawn-out illness. But there’s more to it than that. For many of us, actually leaving is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to say when we do.
We don’t want to have to comb through our swirling emotions to find the perfect string of words. We want our Goodbye to capture our deepest nature and truest emotions, whatever those are. Reflected on the surface of our parting words we want to see who we are now and who we used to be, who we were to the other person, and who we would have been if we had had more time. We want our loved ones to have something to hold on to once we’re gone and they can no longer hold us. We’d like to leave them a beautiful pebble of wisdom that can be turned over in their minds and worn smooth by years of remembering.
We wish we could emulate the sublime poetry of Jesus as he prays for his disciples before setting out for the garden of Gethsemane: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me.” If only we could sift through the ugliness of our parting to find some pulsing thread of beauty. Equally, we wish we could capture the undaunted eloquence of Paul as he departs Ephesus knowing he shall never return: “And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” If only we, too, could stare suffering in the face and still have the presence of mind to preach one last sermon or proclaim once more the Good News.
For most of us, however, there will be no last perfect lecture, sermon, or conversation. We’ll fumble our words, apologize for our awkwardness, and fall back upon that simple, impossible word: Goodbye.
We rely on that word to convey the weight of our affections and our regrets, our cherished memories and all the words never spoken and gestures never made. We place all that came before and all that might have happened on the back of one word – one small, underappreciated, overburdened, little donkey of a word: Goodbye.
Somehow, though, Goodbye bears the weight. Goodbye is enough. Goodbye holds within itself both the rhetoric of Paul and the poetry of Jesus. Goodbye lifts the burden of articulacy from our shoulders and carries the inexpressible load of our devotion and our sadness. But that is, of course, because Goodbye is a loaded word. It is the donkey that bears the most precious load we can utter. For Goodbye is nothing more and nothing less than “God be with you” worn smooth by centuries of human partings. The words have grown together and intertwined with repetition. “With” has fallen away, and our clumsy tongues have stretched “God” into “good”. But the benediction is there nonetheless. In Goodbye is buried Paul’s resounding “I commend you to God” and Jesus’s poignant “Holy Father, protect them in your name.” Goodbye – God be with you – bears it all.
We may want more words, better words, to leave with those we love, and perhaps in the moment we’ll find some. But in the end, Goodbye is enough. Goodbye bears the most exquisite benediction that we forget we’ve been saying all along.
God be with you.
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