If you love someone, leave them.
A few years ago I was driving on a rural road in Connecticut at dusk during the magic hour--that 20 minute period of indirect light in the morning or afternoon that cinematographers love when the sun is just below the horizon and the landscape glows under a beautiful golden sky. I remember wondering as I was driving if heaven had a gorgeous landscape of trees and meadows and merry brooks like the ones I was passing on this road.
I probably should have been paying more attention, because at that moment a deer suddenly jumped right out of the bushes to my right just ahead of me. I slammed on my brakes and successfully avoided the animal, but the car that was passing me on the left was not as fortunate. She hit the deer, and it was thrown off to the side of the road. She stopped her car, and I stopped mine, and we both got out. There was significant damage to the front of her car, and she was shaken, but she told me she was OK. We approached the deer. It was lying on its side, and it apparently had died. We both expressed how bad we felt for the deer, and acknowledged that it would have been impossible to avoid it in any case. The woman called AAA and I called the local police to report the dead deer, and I stayed there with her until about 20 minutes later when a tow truck came and took the woman and her car away.
The tops of the trees were outlined with a golden tone, and it was still beautiful but the violence of the accident and the death of the deer had spoiled its glory. I got in my car, buckled my seat belt, turned on the engine and was about to pull out when I saw a baby deer standing off to the side of the road amidst the trees, looking over towards the body of what was probably her mama. I put the car in park, wondering if I should do anything. I opened the door, and the sound and the movement must have scared her, and she ran off into the darkened forest of trees where she had been standing. There was nothing I could do, so I started driving back home.
On the way I wondered: what does a baby deer do when its mama dies like that? How will it grow into the deer it is supposed to be? Will it find another adult deer to take care of it and guide it, or will it just fend for itself somehow? And of course I thought of Bambi, who also lost his mother, or Simba in the Lion King, who was orphaned when his father Mufasa was killed. How did he learn to follow in his father’s footsteps as lion king?
Last week I had a conversation with the parent of one of my film students who just graduated from college. Her daughter had decided not to come home, and had made plans to move across the country right away to try to start a career in California. “I was shocked when she announced this idea,” said the mother. “I had been looking forward to having her back with the family, at least for a couple of years. She doesn’t know anyone out there, she has no job, and not a lot of money. And she doesn’t know how to cook! I’m really worried for her,” she said.
I could see the pain in her eyes. She felt hurt and rejected, and her fear was real that her daughter would have a difficult time of it. And she was right to some extent. It’s not easy to break into the film industry in Los Angeles, it’s expensive out there, and it’s a challenge to find places to live and new friends for emotional support. And I had to admit to her mother that I did something similar on my own graduation day, surprising my parents who were expecting to load up the car in Washington DC with me and my stuff and take me home to New York, until I announced to them that I was staying there instead—also without a job! Grateful as I was for all my parents had done for me, I knew that I needed to be on my own to start my life after college. And it turned out that during those couple of years that I experienced a commitment with a girlfriend, learned amazing things about myself with a challenging job, and struggled with the idea of going to law school as my parents hoped, or joining the Jesuits. I’m pretty sure that if I had gone home, I wouldn’t be standing here before you today in this place.
Leaving home for school can also be traumatic for parents and their children. Year after year I witnessed so many tearful farewells when parents dropped off their freshmen children to begin their college careers at the university where I have been teaching. And I have had so many conversations with worried parents when some of their fears came true—their kids getting into trouble with alcohol or drugs, or abandoning their faith, or acquiring a different political point of view, or choosing a career that doesn’t get the parental stamp of approval. It takes a lot out of a parent to let their children go, to give them space and freedom to grow. And yet we raise our children to be free and independent, right? To be honest, I suspect that I would have a lot of trouble actually doing that, which is probably why I’d be a terrible parent.
There often comes a time in our lives when we can have a greater influence on the children we love if we consciously throw them out of the nest to spread their own wings and discover their own unique gifts. The truth is that children can’t simply be clones of their parents, nor should they be. The truth is that to truly grow into ourselves it helps to be able to be physically, intellectually and emotionally detached at times from the people who have had the greatest role in forming us—our parents and family. It’s a paradox, right? Sometimes the only way to love someone is to leave them.
In the days after Jesus died, he wanted to console his friends and reveal the truth of his conquest over death—the earth-shattering fact of his resurrection. And so he appeared to them in different faces and improbable places. But he also wanted to teach his friends that he was entrusting a power to them with which they would transform the world. And when he believed that the message had been received, he knew that he needed to get out of the way and let them fly on their own. “It is better for you that I go away!,” he said. “You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don't go away, you will be unable to receive my spirit.” Jesus said that over and over to them, words of wisdom that parents sometimes have the courage to say and act upon with their children.
And sometimes children need to say those words to their parents. “Mom and Dad, I have to go to LA, it’s better for you and for me. If I don’t go, I’ll never be able to become the adult you need me to be. It’s the only way that our love can grow deeper.”
I’m not sure exactly what happened when Jesus ‘ascended’ to heaven. Was it like in the movies--the husband in the movie Ghost, or the girl in The Lovely Bones? The ascension of Jesus is described in our first reading: “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” And as the apostles lingered in their gaze heavenward, astonished at Jesus’ disappearance, two angelic-looking guys suddenly appeared and instructed them that it was time lower their eyes and look earthward. It was time to get to work.
The Kingdom of God was now in their hands, with the help and the support of the Holy Spirit.
During the morning magic hour exactly 26 years ago today I was standing inside the doorstep of my parents’ home, watching the orange sun reveal itself as it rose from beneath the distant hills alongside the Hudson River.
There were tears in my eyes as I tried to digest and accept my mother’s final moments on the living room sofa right behind me. As she had taken her last breath, I witnessed the phenomenon of her departing soul. Left behind on the couch was the physical body she had shed, the instrument that had communicated her love to her family, her friends, and to me. I realized she no longer needed it, nor did I.
I looked out at the Springtime world before me like the baby deer beside the road, and realized that I would live this day for the first time in my life without the presence of my mother on the earth. I had crossed a major threshold in my life. As with my mother, and all the faithful departed, so too with Jesus.
He has ascended, but he has never left us alone. “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” It is our time to transform the world in his love. The Kingdom of God is now in our hands, with the help and support of the Holy Spirit. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded to you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”