Jesus said, “You have heard Me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming to you.’”
Several times a year I have a dream about my childhood home. We moved into it when I was three and my mother owned it until I was twenty-seven. There is something about losing your place of origin that sets you adrift; you have to move forward when there is no nest to which you can return. In most of the dreams, my childhood home is falling apart: the pipes leak, the roof has holes, the wiring is setting off sparks, and on and on and on. Now I am not a professional interpreter, but I think these particular dreams always pop up around issues or concerns regarding my family of origin. Another interpretation is that they have something to do with my own sense of getting older. Either way, you will understand why I am drawn to this poem by Eric Ormsby called Childhood House:
After our mother died, her house, our
childhood house, disclosed
all its deterioration to our eyes.
While living she had screened us from, or we hadn’t seen,
the termite-nibbled floorboards and the rotting beams;
the wounded stucco hidden by shrubbery; the frayed,
unpredictable wiring, and the clanking labor
of the hot-water line into the discolored
tub; the fixtures in the dining room
skewed and malfunctioning.
I remember thinking with a
swarm of confusion that this was the true state
of our childhood now: this house of dilapidated girders
eaten away at the base. Somehow I had assumed
that the past stood still, in perfect effigies of itself,
and that what we had once possessed remained our possession
forever, and that at least the past, our past, our child-
hood, waited, always available, at the touch of a nerve,
did not deteriorate like the untended house of an
aging mother, but stood in pristine perfection, as in
our remembrance. I see that this isn’t so, that
memory decays like the rest, is unstable in its essence,
flits, occludes, is variable, sidesteps, bleeds away, eludes
all recovery; worse, is not what it seemed once, alters
unfairly, is not the intact garden we remember but,
instead, speeds away from us backward terrifically
until when we pause to touch that sun-remembered
wall the stones are friable, crack and sift down,
we could cry at the fierceness of that velocity
if our astonished eyes had time.
When Jesus said, “I am going away and I am coming to you” He was calling on His followers to embrace the paradox that life is about losing and looking forward. Ormsby’s poem ends with the shattering realization that he has done neither well. Rather than acknowledging what has been lost, he looks backward as if everything in his past is in tact; as if it has not changed at all. To the degree that he has moved forward he has done so based on this mistaken premise about the past. And then, to his astonishment, reality hits him with a “fierceness of velocity” and he can scarcely make sense of what it all means. It is one of the paradoxes in life, that life is about losing and looking forward.
The word ‘paradox’ comes from the Latin roots para, which means ‘contrary to’, and doxa, which means ‘opinion’. So a paradox is a statement that is contrary to popular opinion. It comes to us as a proposition seemingly self-contradictory and yet expresses the truth. It also holds together two things that seem to be in contradiction.
Popular opinion holds that you should avoid loss at all costs. The greater the loss the more our culture seems to want to sweep it under the rug. Jesus goes against our conventional wisdom when He tells His followers right up front, “I am going away; there is a loss coming and there is nothing you can do about it.”
This passage of John’s gospel has particular liturgical significance at this time, which is why it is assigned to be read today. This Thursday will be the 40th day after Easter Sunday. It is the day when the church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord. It is the day when Jesus literally goes away (and does so in very dramatic fashion by being lifted up into the air and disappearing into the clouds). Two weeks from today, on the 50th day after Easter, we will celebrate Pentecost, which is the birthday of the Church inaugurated by the coming of the Holy Spirit. Do you see in these two feast days the paradox of loss and looking forward? Jesus does not shield His friends from the inevitability of loss. It is a part of the reality of this life. But He also points them toward the promise of a new reality, a new blessing, a new gift, a new day, and new joy.
Religion and paradox go hand-in-hand. We turn to faith to make sense of life’s contradictions and to discern deeper truths that may be contrary to popularly held opinions. Our faith teaches us that nothing lasts forever, that death in all its many forms is inevitable. Yet, Christ assures us that the cry of death is not the last word because it is always followed by the joyous shout of “resurrection!” We are people who even at the grave make our song “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” The losing in life is not something from which we hide, rather it is something we embrace. As the grief of lose eases we become more and more able to look backward in celebration of what has been, even though it no longer is. And as we look back, we can also anticipate what is to come: today, tomorrow… a new blessing, and new blossom, a new burst of life, and one day a new heaven and a new earth.
Today is Mothers’ Day. It is a day of paradox when we celebrate the blessing of mothers in our midst while quietly remembering the mothers we have lost. It is a day of losing and looking forward. It is a reminder of our faith’s opinion about life: we can embrace what was and is no longer as we live in hopeful anticipation of what will be.