Sweet Sorrow

Those perky kids in The Sound of Music singing “So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, adieu…” (to you and you and you) give us a glimpse of what joyful goodbyes look like. If parting is such sweet sorrow, they show us the sweet side.  At the final moment of departure, we seem to appreciate the people to whom we bid farewell in a way that doesn’t often get expressed in the day to day of ongoing interaction. Like the beauty of the last rays of a sunset, these sorrowful moments retain a sweetness.

Each Feast of the Church has a Leave-taking, the day the celebration ends for the current year. Most celebrations last a week, some a bit less. The Feast of Feasts, Pascha, allows us to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ for a full 40 days, which end today. On a leave-taking, we revisit most of the liturgical celebration of the feast itself and with a “one more time” or “encore!” exuberance, bid the feast a fond farewell until the next year. It is this “until then” quality that brings more sweetness to the parting.

This same theme of farewell is also at the core of the Feast which follows on the next day after the Leave-taking of Pascha: The Ascension of our Lord. We remember and celebrate the end of His earthly ministry, His return to the Father in the body He took on for us and for our salvation. We remember the promise that He will return again and until that time, His promise that He will remain mystically present through sending the Holy Spirit. So much to contemplate and celebrate!

We might imagine the disciples returning to Jerusalem sorrowful at His departure, afraid to face the authorities without Him presents—the very ones that have both just killed their Master and promised punishment to His followers. But surprisingly the Gospels state clearly that the disciples returned to Jerusalem “with great joy” (Luke 24:52). Why joyful? There could be many reasons, but I’ll list a few:

– He promised to return: One hallmark of the early Church was their gearing life around what they assumed would be His imminent return.

– He promised the Holy Spirit: Even in His “absence” He promised to be present.

– Parting is such sweet sorrow: Having lived daily, walking with the Son of God, the moment of their parting must have had the same sweetness mixed with grief that all good partings have. The reality of the parting made the awareness of the reality of the connection unmistakable.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the Feast of the Holy Ascension is that this same joy is available to us. We, too, live in the hope of Christ’s return. We, too, upon contemplating His bodily departure can appreciate His bodily presence in new and profound ways. And we, too, can renew our ongoing connection with Him through the Holy Spirit that has been poured out for us.

So, yes, parting is such sweet sorrow. Whether it’s saying “farewell” to the Paschal season or contemplating the Ascension of Christ, we are blessed by contemplating on this sweet sorrow. Too often we focus on the sorrow of farewells. We would do well to savor the sweetness as well.