Late into the summer afternoon we laughed and talked. The children played tag on the grass and their shadows grew longer as the grownups lingered over one more cup of punch, maybe another cookie. It was the kind of afternoon we didn’t want to end. Time together had become rare over the years and we had looked forward to this get-together of family and friends for a long time. The children were lined up and pictures were taken. Good friends smiled at each other over picnic tables and observed the traces of time gone by on one another’s faces.
The boys and I had a long drive ahead of us and so finally it was time to leave. Michelle, my best friend since the first day of kindergarten, who now lives in Boston, walked us to our car. Her four boys ran circles around my two boys and they roughhoused like old friends even though they had all only met that week. For at least that moment it was how we had always thought it would be – her children and my children all good friends just like we had always been.
Michelle and I stood by the car. We talked about how good it had been to see each other again. How we would make sure that it wouldn’t be so long until the next time we got together. We marveled at each other’s children and how we couldn’t believe that here we were – old married ladies with families and homes.
Owen and Jesse hugged their new little friends goodbye and I buckled them into the car seats. Michelle and I hugged and then stood facing each other, motionless, until finally she smiled and said, “I’ll see you later.” In that moment I thought about the first time I saw her, all pigtails and freckles, playing with blocks in the corner of a classroom, I remembered long walks on gravel roads, long talks about boys and then us driving around town in her dad’s big orange truck. A thousand memories in a split second as I saw the late afternoon breeze brush through her hair. I simply smiled back at her and said, “I’ll see you later.”
As I finally got into my car and headed west, the boys dozed off, and thought about the day and my dear friend and how we never said “goodbye.”
I don’t know about you – but I don’t like goodbyes. I’ll do most anything to avoid them. I still cry nearly every time I leave my mother’s house for the long drive back to Colorado. I don’t even like leaving my boys behind at preschool for the day – unless they’ve been particularly whiny – then, I don’t mind so much.
And of course, these days, the word “goodbye” has been on my mind a lot. Partly because soon our family is going to be making some big changes as we move from here to Texas. But also because I’ve been thinking a lot about the events we remember on this Maundy Thursday.
Maundy Thursday always rings of such sadness to me. It’s almost more sad to me than Good Friday – partly because I can’t fully comprehend the horror of the crucifixion, but also because I know how hard it can be to say “goodbye”. As I think about the last supper, the last meal that Jesus ate with his disciples, I can only imagine the sadness around that table. I think about them wondering exactly what he meant as he kept saying “remember me”. “Remember me by eating this bread and drinking this wine.” I imagine constricted throats trying to choke down pieces of bread, sips of wine. “What does he mean? He’s leaving us? What does he mean? One of us will betray him?” What had it all meant if it only had to end this way? Did the shared walks and talks and the moments the disciples and Jesus had spent together, and all he had taught them mean anything if it all was just ending?
It isn’t difficult to wonder that ourselves when we teeter on the brink of goodbyes. When the illness has run its course, when a journey together has culminated and paths separate, when we find ourselves at that moment when the roads diverge and we face an ending. How do we make sense of all that has been shared? Do the long walks and the talks and the laughter and the tears and all the wonderful and difficult moments shared really mean anything if they just have to end in a goodbye? Where do we find our hope and our peace when we face endings?
I think Jesus answers this for us in words that he also spoke on this night we are remembering. Gathered there with his disciples he said, 33“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
34“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Why this talk about love right now? I think it was more than just a new commandment or some good advice for their future work together and as they went about their lives. I think it was more than just a way for people to recognize Christ’s ideals still in alive in the disciples.
Listen to the words of Saint Paul: Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 1but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three abide: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
That is a scripture often read at weddings, but I like to read it at funerals, too. I love it because in verse it says that faith, hope, and love abide. That word “abide” is a beautiful word that we don’t hear too often anymore but it means, to go on, to remain, to last, to stay. Love remains.
Jesus was telling his disciples that by continuing to love one another and to love others, he would always be with them. The presence of love in our world means Christ’s own presence, Christ’s own resurrecting presence, Christ’s own eternal presence remains. And do you know what this means for us in our relationships here on earth? It means that everything matters because even if we have put just a thimble-full of love into a relationship, that relationship will have an eternal dimension, because Love goes on forever.
And that is how we can put time and energy into our relationships here and now and know that while moments of separation may come, whether short or long, those do not last. Not even the ultimate separation of death. That is how a few months ago I could stand over my father’s grave and pour the sand over his coffin and speak the words, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” with no tears in my eyes. While life as we knew it was ending, I knew then as I know now that the most important things remained. Certainly, many things do die when the last breath is drawn – things like broken bodies and sadness and strained relationships, things like misunderstandings or bitterness or hopelessness – all those things do die, but what lasts is Love. There are no real goodbyes for people who believe in a resurrected Lord. We can always simply say, “I’ll see you later.”
Easter morning is yet far away. There is a sad and bitter journey we need to yet take with our Lord. Jesus leaves the meal with his disciples to go to the garden of Gethsemane to pray in anguish, knowing that there is a cup that only he can drink. He sees his only friends have fallen asleep rather than staying awake with him in this bitter hour.
But one thing we can trust as darkness falls on our Lord. One thing we can trust even as the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard and the elders come for him. One thing we can trust as the crowd shouts for his death and he carries his own means of execution to Golgotha is that the whole way, through his sweat and his tears and his blood and his cries, if you listen carefully you will hear him whispering to us the whole way – not goodbye, never goodbye – no, he is whispering – “I will see you later.”
Let us pray…
Dear Lord, on this Holy night we pray that you be with us. Be with us in our prayers and sighs. Be with us as our Lenten journey comes ever closer to the cross. Be with us in our relationships with one another – help us to build each one of those relationships on a foundation of love. Be with us especially when it becomes difficult to love. Be with us as you have promised you always will be in our sharing of bread and wine. How we do we remember you, Lord Jesus. How we love you. How we praise you. How we thank you and adore you. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.