Words of Farewell

Words of Farewell

Seventh Sunday of Easter. Fr Bruno Clifton preaches on the farewell of Christ the High Priest to his Father.

One of life’s most painful things can be the absence of someone we love. This is all the more acute when there is no discernible end to the separation. And this experience most often falls upon us just as we realise how much our loved one means to us; how much of themselves they have given to us; how much we wish we could give back.

At supper, at their last supper, Jesus’s disciples begin to realise who their love is: ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father’ — they have God for their friend? and now he leaves them.

Jesus’s words to them at table, ‘I am the Way?’, ‘in my Father’s house are many rooms’, are cold comfort, only increasing the pain as they see the first glimpse of the depth of his love, a pain ever greater as he leaves them and goes to the cross.

So Jesus’s final leave-taking at this farewell dinner is not to the disciples, but to the Father — to his Father. ‘Glorify your Son?’

The prayer of a priest before God is that of Son before Father and is strangely timeless. Uttered on the cusp of redemption, it echoes through the history of God’s action in the world. ‘Let him give eternal life to all whom you have given him? now they know that everything that you have given me is from you.’ The church witnesses the communion between Jesus and the Father and is brought into it. She shares in this Son’s love for his Father and so is part of the very life of God.

It will be through the cross that this life of God is poured out on the world. Divine life is given to us. ‘And this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ We are called into the reciprocal glory of the Triune God — the Son is glorified so that he may glorify the Father — and this glory is God’s Spirit, overflowing into the Church: ‘in them I am glorified’.

But Jesus is still leaving and the world will seem a hostile, lonely place for those left behind. This will be St Peter’s experience and St Paul’s burden. We may endure in the hope for Christ’s glory to be revealed, but our share in his sufferings will fall heavy. We seem to have seen the reward, to have known the glorious love of Christ, only for him to disappear. As the Song of Songs says, ‘Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not.’ (Song 3.1)

If your love goes away, the single, ever-sustaining hope is that parting promise: ‘I love you’. An entire life can be shaped by the longing for the fulfilment of these words. And this is Christ’s promise. This is our faith and hope in his love. But God’s Word of Love is not simply an idea, a notional promise to cling onto as the years fade. It is a real force; a real presence — now, here, in this world; sustaining and bringing us already into the life of God.

Words stand for many things, can be symbolic of many things and ‘I love you’ is often the most ambiguous phrase of all. But when the one who loves you is the Creator of heaven and earth, it is real.

Readings: Acts 1:12-14 | 1 Peter 4:13-16 | John 17:1-11

fr Bruno is Vice-Regent of Blackfriars Hall and Studium, Oxford, where he teaches Biblical Studies.