I preached this sermon on Sunday, May 21, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Acts 1:6-14 (an account of the Ascension of Jesus) and John 17:1-11.
I find it a fascinating feature of certain languages that the same word can be used for both hello and goodbye. In Italian, whether coming or going, people often simply say “ciao.” In Hawaiian, it is “aloha.” In the Czech Republic, where I did a study abroad year in college, they say “ahoj,” which honestly always made me feel a little bit like a pirate. When a word like this contains within itself more than one meaning, it is called polysemy.
We have many polysemous words in English, too, of course, but we typically use different words to greet one another and then to take our leave. Although even for us, we might choose to say “good day” or “good evening” on both arrival and departure.
In all of the instances when one word serves as both hello and a goodbye, our languages reveal something deeper than their simple function. When both meanings are held in the same word, there is an acknowledgment of the fluidity of time and space and our place within them; when hello and goodbye are the same, then every coming together acknowledges an inevitable parting of ways, and yet every parting of ways holds within it the hope of inevitable reunion.
I like this very much, not only because it is linguistically nuanced, but because it feels true, it feels like a little reminder that whether, in this moment, we are moving closer or farther from one another, we are still connected.
And if that is true, then it suggests that the narratives we so often tell of encounters and departures—of definitive hellos and devastating goodbyes—are all, in reality, held within a larger, more gentle and generous story wherein all the roads we travel are interconnected, where all of our hellos and goodbyes lead back to one another in the end. Which is, itself, a polysemous, complex realization.
Because if hello and goodbye are never truly final, it’s a consolation when we feel the sting of loneliness and yet it’s also a caution when we would rather escape our histories or shrug off our responsibilities to right relationship, because the intertwining of all our hellos and goodbyes signifies that we are inextricably tied to one another and to the whole of the earth. It suggests that, as the poet Tennyson says, we are a part of all that we have met, and, thus, it is part of us. Hello, you are part of me. Goodbye, I am part of you. No matter where we go, we will never not be part of each other. And knowing this, we must decide how best to live.
I am thinking about hellos and goodbyes and polysemy this week because we have just celebrated the Feast of the Ascension this past Thursday and you can tell that its story is echoing into our lectionary readings this morning, and to tell the truth, this story has always felt like kind of a bummer to me in the midst of our Easter joy.
Because viewed from one angle, the Ascension is a goodbye narrative. The risen Jesus, only recently reunited with his beloved friends and family, is carried up in a cloud, into the great Mystery where it is beyond our capacity to see him, and his disciples are left staring at the sky, yearning for one last glimpse of him.
And from this perspective, especially for all of us who have grieved the loss of a beloved face, who have felt the hollowness of being the one left behind, the Ascension might feel a bit like a flat note in the jubilant melody of the season.
We might say, You loved us enough to come back from death, Lord, so why must you go, now, to a place where we cannot see you? Why must we continue to let go of you? Why is it still the case, even after the Resurrection, that everyone and everything we love still says goodbye to us in the end? Why must we wait here alone, waiting for the unresolved promise of your peaceable kingdom?
And yes, Lord, I know you have promised us the Spirit as our Comforter and guide, but if I am brutally honest, Lord, there are days I would trade that unseen Spirit for just one glimpse of your face, for one moment of your actual hands holding mine, reassuring me that I am not alone on this journey, some proof that your leaving was not forever, that there will come a day when we can say hello and it will not also mean goodbye. I would give anything to know that there will be, one day, an end to endings.
But depart he does, and wait we must. And so for now, like the disciples on the mountain, we must stand in this polysemous moment of the goodbye that searches for a hello, containing within itself both joy and grief, reunion and relinquishment, and we must continue to wonder why and how and when we will understand the necessity of loss.
But then this week, as I was reflecting on all of this, something occurred to me: that the Ascension, like so many other stories in Scripture, is itself polysemous—it, too, means multiple things at once. And while it is indeed a farewell narrative from the perspective of us and the disciples on the mountain, I realized that from the vantage point of God the Father, from the vantage point of the Spirit aloft on the high wind, from vantage point of the innermost heart of the Trinity, the Ascension is a hello, a celebration, a homecoming. It is Jesus, the Son, in the fullness of his risen, reclaimed, redeemed human flesh, crossing back over the threshold of heaven saying to the Father, here I am, I have returned to you, and much have I seen, and long have I loved you, and how good it is to be in your embrace again.
And if we truly love him, how could we not want our Lord to finally be at home? How could we not feel some joy that even though we must say goodbye, it is because he needed to see his Father’s face once more? I can’t begrudge him that. I know I want to see my father’s face again someday, too.
And there’s also this: in the Ascension, when Jesus says goodbye to us and hello to eternity, he is, in truth, doing something entirely new, something that only he could do, fully human, fully divine, his polysemous body drawn up and out beyond the limits of the flesh, blurring the boundaries between heaven and earth, reigning as the Lord of both.
He is not simply saying both hello and goodbye at the same time; he is breaking down the barriers between hello and goodbye; the barriers that separate us from God and one another. He is effecting his prayer that we might all be one, never parted. He is transfiguring all our beginnings and our endings, all of our greetings and our grief, all of our hope and our fear, into something bigger, something timeless, something that we cannot even imagine because we have not yet known a story that didn’t have an ending.
By journeying to a realm where human flesh could never have otherwise gone, he is making a place for us, a place where we will be greeted and welcomed, and somehow, where we will never have to say goodbye.
And when he returns, bringing back the glory of heaven for our eyes to behold at last, it will be a new word that he speaks, neither hello nor goodbye, but some word no mind has yet conceived, that no lip has dared to speak, a word that contains all things within itself, a polysemous Word that resolves every question, dries every tear, mends every broken heart, a word that will make the earth tremble with its beauty and its power, a word that will hold more than we could ever say but that will say it all. A word that will initiate our own Ascension.
What will that word be? I do not know. But in essence, I think it will say, here I am, I have returned to you, and much have I seen, and long have I loved you, and how good it is to be in your embrace again.
And now, no more hellos, no more goodbyes. Only this. Only us. All of us together. Always.