The last Sunday after Epiphany. The readings were:
One of my favourite singers/songwriters is a young man by the name of Josh Ritter. Ritter is originally from Moscow, Idaho – just an hour and change from here – and his music is steeped in this countryside. The beauty of this part of the world, the rhythm of the seasons, the mountains and grassland and sunshine and snow, all these things echo through his work.
It is one of Ritter’s odes to the long days of summer, a song called Me and Jiggs, that is particularly caught in the great web of my imagination. In it, Ritter sings of lying on his back as the sun goes down – of a quintessential scene of sleepy, midsummer contentment.
Now, were he to leave us there, at rest before the descending sun, Ritter’s words and melody would invite us into place of beauty and of warm serenity. But Ritter is rarely content with the simple, with the clear and unmuddied – maybe that is what makes him a great songwriter. And so he adds a line that simultaneously deepens and complicates the scene. You know it’s perfect, he sings of this time before the sunset, because you’ve got to leave. In other words, the glory of moment is magnified by the knowledge that it is soon to end.
I don’t know about you, but I know exactly what Ritter is talking about here. There is something about being on the precipice of an ending that makes the present more intense, more real – more, as he says, perfect. The last jump off the diving board, the last dance at the prom, the last day at camp, the last few moments of warm comfort before your Mom makes you get out of bed. The last few minutes of laughter and tears and promises to call before the car pulls away and you are, suddenly, alone. These are moments when joy and loss are present in equal parts, when they are mixed together.
Faced with such an ending, with that strange happiness which points at grief, there is an instinct within us which says that it is time to start negotiating. To say, do you really have to go, does this moment really have to end, couldn’t we just stay here forever? Or, at a minimum, to postpone the ending, to avoid acknowledging it. Couldn’t I have just five minutes more? Could we please just talk about something else?
Today, we encounter two stories of such perfect endings. Both stories involve students and teachers.
Famously, here is Peter on the mountaintop, offering to build houses for the transfigured Jesus and Elijah and Moses. To create the dwelling that would allow that moment to keep going forever. There is a lot to be said about Transfiguration – and about Peter’s reaction to it – but I’d like to leave that conversation for another day, maybe for the Feast of the Transfiguration this August. Today, my attention is drawn to another teacher and another student, a pair who walked together years before Jesus and Peter first met.
Here is the student Elisha and here is his beloved teacher, Elijah. The two are walking towards the Jordan, that body of water which is both a river and a metaphor – over and over in scripture, the Jordan functions as a marker of endings and beginnings, of death and new life. In this long walk, there is a complicity of silence between Elisha and Elijah. It is a complicity which you may recognise. The two have agreed, without ever saying so out loud, that they will not discuss what is about to happen, that they will not name the truth that Elijah’s walk will take him to the end of his life.
How many living rooms and dining rooms and hospital rooms have mirrored this internally censored conversation? Here is a person who knows that she is irreversibly dying – that her cancer or her Alzheimer’s or her other illness will not be cured – but who will not name this truth before her loved ones, so as not to burden them. And, here, sitting across the table or at the side of the bed, here are the dying person’s children or siblings or friends or even parents. Who know that their loved one will not be getting better. Of course they do. They have spoken to her doctor and, besides, her body is ravaged by disease. It shouts the news of death’s coming from the rooftops. But they will speak of none of this to their loved one, so as not to burden her.
This well-intentioned lie cemented on both sides, the conversation is stranded in the great desert of the superficial. Maybe someone tries every now and again to name what is really going on. And, if they are persistent enough or strong enough or lucky enough, they may be able to do so. But, more often than not, someone will steer the conversation back into the agreed upon fiction. As the loved one seeks to talk about her will, about her wishes for after her death, we are quick to cut her off: O, Mom! You’re going to outlive us all!
And so, the friends walk to the Jordan together, and the opportunity to say and do what is really important – to express love, to ask forgiveness, to tell beloved stories one last time – slowly slips away.
The writer of this passage in 2nd Kings magnifies the unspoken sorrow of this moment through repetition. We have the looping of this scene in which: first, Elijah tells Elisha to stay here, to let him go on alone – in the New American Bible translation, the aching sorrow of this request is magnified as the translators render his words, Stay here, please; second, Elisha emphatically refuses – I will not leave you; third, this curious group of folks, the college of prophets ask Elisha, Don’t you know that the Lord is taking your master home?; and, finally, Elisha responds.
Yes. Yes, I know. Stop talking about it.
And so it might keep going, circling through the same conversation until Elijah is called home and Elisha is left holding the great and heavy bag of things unsaid. But then, Elijah breaks the circle. He finds the courage to name what is happening. He finds the courage to speak. And Elisha finds the courage to listen.
Tell me, Elijah says, what I may do for you before I am taken from you.
And Elisha responds: Please. Let me inherit a double share of your spirit.
Now, this is pretty fancy language, this inheriting of spirit stuff. But its sentiment is actually quite simple. A double share is what a first born son could expect to receive from his father upon the latter’s death. And, thus, Elisha is telling his teacher that he has become as a father to him. It is an extraordinary confession of love and of gratitude. But there is still more. Because what Elisha asks for is not a double share of money or of land or of livestock, but of spirit.
What Elisha is saying to his teacher in his last moments on earth is this: I want to be just like you.
They have a minute or two more together, then. The truth spoken, the truth heard. There is a freedom in that, a kind of quiet joy. The moment is, indeed, perfect. And they both know that it must end.
When the end does come, it comes crashing into their lives, splitting them apart, the way that loss does. The end comes like a lightning bolt. Like a chariot and horses of fire.
Elisha watches as his teacher recedes into the heavens. Watches calling out, Father! Father! Watches until he can see him no more, until there is nothing but cloud and the wind above his head. He rends his garments in two, then. Because, well, he doesn’t know what else to do.
And here Elisha stands, alone with his grief. But, even in that grief the echoes of that last, perfect moment remain with him. Elisha knows that he has given his teacher gift. And he knows, in the deepest part of himself, that he has received one in return.