"And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy." (Luke 24:52)
"Parting is such sweet sorrow," says Shakespeare's Romeo to his lover Juliet, "and so I bid goodnight till it be morrow."
“Sweet sorrow.” “Sorrow because there is parting, there is separation, but “sweet”, as well, because physical separation does not mean that the relationship has ended; Romeo and Juliet will enjoy their love for each other even though they are not together, and the lovers also have the anticipation of their next meeting to sustain their hearts.
It is the same for everybody. When we part from someone that we care for we tend to speak words that imply that we will meet again. "See you later," we say, or, "See you soon." We have to part from each other because we are individuals with our own lives to lead, but we are not just individuals we are always in community and our anticipation of reunion with those with whom we share our lives, whether that reunion is in half an hour or in several years time, expresses the fact that we are not on our own, but that we belong to each other.
People who love each other look forward to the reunions. We refuse to allow the negative experience of separation to dominate our lives. Our parting from someone does not spell the end of the world. So as we hug and kiss each other, as we shake hands firmly, as tears come to our eyes, in that very moment of sorrow we proclaim the sweetness of life. We say, "Till we meet again." In hope, we look forward to the next meeting of friends.
Of course, there is one goodbye that we all have to make which at first sight appears to be without the hope of reunion. The final and great parting of life is the moment of our death. For all of us, this moment is the ultimate reality, when a negative experience finally does dominate our lives. It would appear that there is no return from this ultimate sorrow, that there is no sweetness in the situation at all, and for many, death is hopeless. But for the Christian it is in fact our moment of greatest hope because it is precisely here, in this darkest hour and blackest moment that we encounter the greatest of God’s words of life - “resurrection”, the rising to life again.
A promise has been made to us. The promise that death is not the end for us but that we will enjoy eternal life in the kingdom of God.
It is reported in the Gospel of John that Jesus said: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
And this is no empty promise,no mere words with nothing to back them up, because Jesus actually showed us the path to eternal life. Jesus Christ parted from this precious life of ours, but he was restored to us on the third day. He was physically raised from the dead by the Father God that he had told us so much about. This is the good news of our Easter celebrations. His restoration to life was the ultimate triumph over death, the means by which we can say that death is not the end. There is life beyond it. So now we need fear death no more, it has no more power over us, it has lost its sting. That is not to deny the pain of parting, and the reality of grief. The time between parting and reunion may well be filled with difficulty and sorrow. But, for the Christian, our sorrow at death is indeed a sweet sorrow, for we shall all meet again.
It is this resurrection faith that has given people strength in the face of death and at the hour of parting. This was how Thomas More came to leave this world and this life that he loved. His deep sorrow at parting from those he loved was made bearable by such faith in Jesus, risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. He left us the famous words by which he said good-bye to his dear daughter, Meg: "Pray for me and I shall pray for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven."
When death is defeated, no parting can ever be death for us. Death, that most devastating of partings, has been destroyed. So, when Jesus ascended to heaven, that parting from his friends did not destroy them. Calvary had destroyed them. Easter had restored them. And in the Ascension Jesus, as ever, was going ahead of us, preparing the way for our own entry into life after death. He had already made it clear to his disciples "I am going to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you may be also."
The ascended Christ, King of kings, waits for us in heaven, where our place has been made ready. We are expected. When we get there, the reunion will be tremendous and joyful. But meanwhile, God stays with us through the constant presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that Jesus told his disciples to wait for. "I will come back to you, wait patiently in the city, you will be clothed with my power". That is why the disciples went back into the city in joy, not in sorrow. This was the beginning for them, not the end, and sure enough this was another of Christ’s promises that was to soon be realised, and we will come together again as a Church to celebrate that first outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s people in just over a week’s time at Pentecost. Romeo and Juliet had their love for each other to sustain them until their next meeting. We have our love for our Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit to sustain us until we meet once more, never again to be parted.