On famous last words and the Ascension
Amongst my many peculiarities, I enjoy reading the last words that people say before they die. Since I am the kind of person who always seems to think of a witty rejoinder about five minutes too late, I really appreciate those who manage - in the most intense of situations - to say something poignant or funny or clever. Joe DiMaggio reportedly said, "Now I get to see Marilyn," referring of course to the love of his life, ex-wife Marilyn Monroe. Beatle George Harrison reportedly said, "Love one another." Gustav Mahler, conducting an imaginary orchestra, shouted out "Mozart!" before he expired. Oscar Wilde's "Either these curtains go or I do" is a classic, of course.
And my all time favourite comes from O. Henry. He appeared to have stopped breathing, but those gathered around his deathbed were unsure if he was really dead or not. "Touch his feet," one of them said, "nobody ever died with warm feet." Whereupon, the short-story writer raised his head from the pillow, mumbled “Joan of Arc did,” and fell back dead.
Now I'll grant you that some of these fall into the "If it's not true it ought to be" category. Many reported last words are constructs, of course, but it doesn't take away from the fact that in even attributing these things to the person who allegedly said them, we're clearly saying something about that person, or at least of what we think is important to remember about that person. We want to believe in a love which - though it ended in divorce - also prompted Joe DiMaggio to have a half a dozen roses delivered to her grave three times a week for twenty years. We want to believe that one of the Fab Four who gave us "All you need is love" wasn't just about the hits, but knew than love was a powerful force in the world. We want to believe that someone who spent his life unleashing the beauty of his music on the world would want to have on his lips the name of the one who personified the mastery of that beauty. And we want to believe that men who brought laughter and tears to us through the sheer grace of their words would have the cleverness to make us smile even at the end.
I think more than questioning the verbatim veracity of these words and what they say about the ones who uttered them, though, these last words tell us perhaps more about ourselves. Who is it that we need these people to be for us? How do we need to be inspired/entertained/strengthened by them?
In this evening's first lesson we have the last words of none other than King David (2 Samuel 23.1-5). And they are lyrical and poetic as one might imagine from the one who composed songs and danced before the Ark. And his words are as a song themselves, lilting in loops but always returning to God in a bold litany: The God of Jacob, the Strong One of Israel, the Lord, the God of Israel, the Rock of Israel. And just as much as they say about that tempestuous slayer of Goliath, these words also address what we who remember David need: poetry and passion and strength when we can feel that we ourselves are in possession of none of these things.
And this evening we begin the commemoration of the Ascension and that last moment of Jesus' bodily presence on this earth. And we'll hear his final words (as recorded by Saint Luke) tomorrow which are stirring and instructive and emboldening as one might imagine from the one who inspired and taught and expected others to be strong enough to continue all that he had begun. And just as they say much about the Word Made Flesh, these words also address what we who remember Jesus need: inspiration and teaching and strengthening when we ourselves can feel we are lacking in all of these things.
Yes, every bit as much as the Ascension is a celebration of the power and triumph of Jesus Christ, so too is it a celebration of us, of the power we need in our lives to combat some fairly awful situations, and of the love of a God who promises to give that to us in his Son. He who promises that - though we can feel his absence like a weight upon our shoulders - we will never really leave us; he will be with us until he returns.
We need to hear this. And let us take comfort in some other famous last words, that of the Bible: "The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen."