Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Let it go

We are now in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) when followers of Jesus focus on themes of prayer, repentance, and preparation, and many engage in practices of fasting, abstinence, and devotion. The culmination of Lent is Holy Week which commemorates the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. After he rose from the dead, in fact another forty days later, Jesus ascended into heaven, an event we commemorate on Ascension Sunday (six weeks after Easter).

Image from jefftyner.theworldrace.org
Last week, I came across a story in Ronald Rolheiser's book, The Holy Longing, that shifted my focus from the highly visible first 40 days (Lent) to the second 40 days which fall between Jesus' resurrection and ascension. Rolheiser tells about a man who dreamed of being a professional hockey player and got pretty close (tier-one junior hockey) but was never quite good enough to make it to the National Hockey League. When he realised he was never going to make it professionally, he moved back home, got a job at Safeway, got married, and had four kids. Twenty-five years later he finds himself still working at the same store, still partially living in that hockey dream, collecting hockey autographs, and wondering "what if?" Despite having a basically good life, he is unhappy. He says, "It's a shame for my wife and kids - who are really good and in the end the only thing that's important - that I haven't been there for them like I should have been. I [have] to be who I am and get inside of my own life instead of trying to live somebody else's life or trying to live a dream that was over a long time ago." (Rolheiser, 155).

Rolheiser comments: "This man is ready for ascension. He has had his 'forty days,' twenty-five years of grieving and adjustment. Now he is ready to let the old ascend so that he can receive the spirit for someone who is forty-seven years old, overweight, and living and working in a small town in northern Canada. Some of the happiest people in the world fit that description, as do too some of the most restless people in the world. Happiness and restlessness are not determined by who makes it big time and who ends up in the small towns. They depend upon the ascension and pentecost and whether these have happened or not." (Rolheiser, 155).

In Christian circles, it is common to talk about identifying with the life and teachings of Jesus. We think of love, kindness, compassion, healing, mercy, and focusing on the inner condition of the heart instead of outer actions. In identifying with the death of Jesus, we acknowledge that we must learn to embrace suffering, death, and learn to let things go. Through this process, we are able to receive new life from God, resurrection. However, the new life of resurrection, a life characterised by healing and wholeness, is not the end of the story.

The resurrected Jesus encounters Mary, one of his disciples, near the tomb. When she recognises him and attempts to embrace him, he stops her. Why? Because the resurrected Jesus is not the final act. Jesus does not stick around as the death-defying Messiah who becomes the charismatic leader of the early church. Once more, the disciples had to let Jesus go, this time the resurrected Jesus who seemed to fulfill all their dreams for a visionary, powerful Messiah. Because if they did not let him go, they would not move on, not be able to receive his Spirit in a dynamic and powerful way on Pentecost.

This seems to be a recurring theme in the biblical texts, especially in the life and teachings of Jesus. People are constantly being challenged to let go of their expectations, their dreams, their plans, their belief systems, their ways of knowing, their prejudices, and their desire to hold onto the good things in life. If Jesus had remained with the disciples as a risen Messiah, a death-conquering Messiah, they would have avoided a second, painful letting go. But they also would have missed learning to trust God in uncertain and scary circumstances and they would have missed learning to trust others as they formed communities of faith. There would have been no Pentecost, that mysterious combination of divine empowerment and presence that God made available to all who would believe. Instead of Jesus being physically present in one place at one time (wonderful as that was), the Spirit of Christ became present in Christians wherever they went. And that kind of multiplication, that kind of added dimension only happened when the disciples let go of the comforting, physical presence which they so craved, which they wanted to cling to, to hold on to, to own.

Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. This refers to a freedom not only from sin and death, but from being clingy people, holding on to our comforts and our dreams and hopes of how things should be. "There is something better," Jesus seems to say to his disciples, "Better than resurrection. Can you trust me enough to let me go again? Can you trust me enough to open yourself up to whatever God will do next?"

2 comments:

steven hamilton said...

So difficult, but so worth it...

Shelley said...

I imagine that in that time period between resurrection and ascension the disciples were both frustrated with Jesus' sudden appearing and disappearing, and excited to always be watching and wondering where he would show up next. In light of your post - that was probably part of their letting go as well...and it mirrors our lives now with the Spirit of God.