By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
We human beings tend to do goodbyes quite poorly. The awkward hugs, weepy embraces, and inevitable resorting to clichéd drivel as the time for separation draws near, all combine to remind us that we much prefer presence to absence, and would rather dodge the dreaded final encounter of a friend or loved one if possible. I know of several college-aged students who explicitly find excuses to avoid the distress of a last farewell with dear friends, even for a parting of only a few months.
The topic of goodbyes comes to mind in this season not only of graduations, but of Pentecost as well. Perhaps we forget that Jesus himself does not shy away from such scenes- chapters 13-17 of John’s Gospel contain the Lord’s pep talk to the apostles, preparing them for his coming absence after his ascension, which takes place in their midst according to Acts 1. Mary, the mother of Jesus, to whom the month of May is traditionally dedicated, offers us a further fascinating meditation on the farewells of the Lord. The final exchange between Jesus and his mother at the foot of the cross, where he entrusts her to the beloved disciple (John 19:25-27), is one of the most unforgettable in all of Scripture. We can presume that they also shared a moment before his ascension, though we can only imagine the words and looks they exchanged.
I would suggest that Mary can teach us how to respond properly and gracefully to the difficult departure of loved ones, whether through death or a lengthy separation. She makes but one appearance in the Acts of the Apostles, the chronicle of the church’s first years after Jesus commends the work he inaugurated to the Holy Spirit, but that single mention is worthy of our careful meditation.
After Jesus ascends into Heaven, the disciples return to Jerusalem, perhaps unsure of the next step. Jesus had indeed promised to send the Holy Spirit, but their Gospel track record of fear in the face of uncertainty suggests that they needed the encouragement of a mother to calm them. That is precisely what Luke records in Acts 1:14: “All these [disciples] devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” The absence of Jesus in the flesh prompts the first Christians not to despair or flee, but to gather around the woman who treasured his presence most intimately and quietly. Just as she becomes the mother of the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross, so too does she become the mother of all disciples, past and present. Prayer, Luke tells us, is the graced response of the community seeking a new insight into the ever-present God with the help of the Virgin Mary; such an insight comes in the following chapter of Acts, with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles at Pentecost.
What, then, can the departure of Jesus teach us? Perhaps it can make us realize that the physical absence of a friend or loved one must prepare us for a future reunion; and in the meantime, we must console and encourage one another as the first disciples did, with Mary in their midst. The same can be said of prayer: the perceived absence of Christ in our hearts and our world should enkindle in us a greater desire for His presence, as well as a greater reliance on those blessed with a constant love of God. This mutual encouragement is a testimony to the presence of faith, which can overcome the most painful absences as light overcomes the deepest darkness.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.