Whenever I started something new in life, I could count on an encouraging letter from my mother that always included the words, “Change is hard.” I appreciated those words every time. I guess they made me feel normal in the midst of my anxiety. It helps me to know that my experiences fit into a larger truth.
Years ago I read a book that impacted me for that very reason. In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser draws on the events Christian communities commemorate this time of year as a way of interpreting our own experiences of change, grief, and new life. Specifically, he names five experiences: Jesus’ Crucifixion; Jesus’ Resurrection; the 40 days of Jesus’ continued presence on earth in his Risen Body; Jesus’ Ascension into heaven; and the Coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Consider an experience of loss and grief: A death, a divorce, or termination of employment. The initial pain of our loss is like the disciples’ experience of Jesus’ crucifixion with its pain, sorrow and disillusionment. We wonder, Is this the end? Will I ever see happiness again? That’s how we feel and that’s how it felt to Jesus’ followers. Life as we have known it and wanted it to be has fallen apart.
Then, we witness that we survive, and even though our hearts are heavy, there are moments when we glimpse hope. For Jesus’ followers, that was the empty tomb and the message that he is not there, but is alive. Where death was supposed to be, death is not. Hope enters.
And so we walk into a new reality with unsure feet. All that we had known is now changed, and we begin the process of learning to live without the familiarity and comfort of how it used to be. For 40 days, the followers of Jesus learned to see him in a new light, often not recognizing him right away for he had also changed. To help them see him anew, he spoke their names, invited their touch, grilled them fish and broke bread with them. Their steps become surer week by week.
In our experience of loss and change, if healing is to occur, we come to point where we accept that the old way will never return. We let go. We do not yet know what the future holds, but we allow ourselves to be free from the past and open ourselves to the will of God to lead us into what is next. Like this, on Ascension Day, the followers of Jesus witnessed his departure and let go of their Lord and friend whom they could touch, and hear and see. And they waited and prayed, unsure, because he told them to.
Then, and this is a great grace, after our experiences of pain, hope, testing the waters of a new reality, and saying good-bye to the old reality, we find firm ground again, fully embracing a new reality with joy and a sense of purpose. We sense that once again, even though our past love and pain will always be part of us, our hearts are full, and we are ready to fully invest again in our new lives. So it was for those first followers of Jesus whose faithful waiting was rewarded by the driving wind and swirling tongues of fire that filled them with the Holy Spirit. They went forth from that upper room confident and joyful, at long last.
Moving from pain and loss to healing and wholeness is a mysterious journey that takes most of us more than 50 days. But we are given these 50 days on the Christian calendar to remember the story of Jesus’ first followers and make it our own. Making their story our story is a pretty good definition of faith, actually, because it leads us to trust that God is working in us as surely as God was working in them. For the person of faith, suffering is never the end of the story.