Farewell” according to the Merriam-Webster definition: “a wish of well-being at parting: good-bye.”1 And “goodbye”? According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it’s a late-sixteenth-century contraction of the late-fourteenth-century expression “God be with ye.”2 Historically, your “goodbye” responded to my “farewell,” as we wished each other the best.
Adolph Ochs’ Farewell Party
As farewells and goodbyes go, former New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs deserves considerable recognition. Ochs is entitled to think of himself as the father of the world’s greatest farewell party. The shindig he first hosted in 1904 is almost certainly America’s most famous New Year’s Eve event, drawing1 million people per year to the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue in central Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S.A. Since 1904, and for every year except two during World War II, people have been reveling in Adolph Ochs’ Times Square party that says goodbye to the old and welcome to each new year. Jenna Winterle, public programs coordinator at the National Constitution Center, notes, somewhat facetiously, that it’s a wonderful way for Americans to celebrate their First Amendment right to assemble.3
But rights of assembly are hardly on the minds of millions of 19- to 35-year-olds who celebrate the square without even going there. Instead, they make up 70 percent of the more than 3 million viewers to NBC’s New Year’s Eve Special With Carson Daly.4 In all, a global audience of more than 1 billion watches the ball-drop that has climaxed the New Year’s Eve countdown every midnight EST since 1907.5
Sweet, but Bitter, Too
Times Square at New Year’s Eve may overflow with joy at the old year’s passing. But Paul’s Miletus farewell (Acts 20:17-38) shows that assemblies for saying goodbye are not always occasions of delight. Indeed, farewells are hardly compelled to be a wonderful thing. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” William Shakespeare makes Juliet say to her Romeo.6 Often enough, “so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye” is enchanting Sound of Music lyrics tearing at soft hearts and stinging even stern eyes. For even as they wish us Godspeed they are pulling us apart from precious people and places we love but may never see again. Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” is virtually the anthem of at least the English-speaking world at midnight on December 31. The old Scottish song that inspired it is much more about longing for yesterday than about excitement for tomorrow. And Ephesian friends who had come to know Jesus because of Paul, who had dumped and incinerated their magic books to stand under the banner of the cross, and walk with him in the way of saving truth and eternal life, found it no great thrill to part from his company, for the last time, as they thought. After savoring three years of his gospel training and godly companionship, they grieved deeply at having to tell him goodbye. It was heartbreaking. They wept a great deal (Acts 20:37, 38).
The Dread of Farewells
As a child I never looked forward to goodbye parties. Indeed, I dreaded farewells. Moving was a different kind of chore from what it is for me today. Long ago in Guyana there was no U-Haul, boxes for sale, or the range of Scotch, Gorilla, Duck, crystal clear acrylic, black, gray, or other packaging and shipping tape options. Yes we did wrap and tie things up. Just not as easily, or as elegantly; maybe or maybe not quite as well. For days or weeks my mother’s house and my school and homework schedule would become increasingly undone with dislocated furniture, helpful church members, other neighbors perhaps, and the grand varieties of cord and string, rope and twine that my unpretentious, ingenious father would be using to tie, bind, and strap incongruous things together for packing then loading on to some horse- or donkey-drawn cart that came to stand on the road outside on that final Saturday night. It would be, for me, the gloomiest kind of Saturday night party, with its inevitable gathered chorus at the end, singing “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Everybody always had to start off holding hands to sing the song, in a grand or smaller circle, depending on how far into the night the packing and loading had taken us, and how many faithful had stayed by to hug their departing pastor one more time. Mostly, during the song, someone was avoiding someone else’s gaze. Sometimes there was sniffling and tugging as people tried to dab at their faces while still holding hands in faithfulness to the circle. The sniffling and tugging cued me to the part I played the best, or the worst, perhaps. For my most notable childhood role was probably my weeping.
They didn’t call me crybaby for nothing. It hurt when I lost valued things—anything, in fact. I was more careful than many children about storing and saving. It hurt when my stored things, money included, did not appear where I knew I should find them. It hurt when my grades disappointed my dad. It hurt when I had to lose my friends. And I cried when it hurt. I even cried after summer camp, because it hurt to have to go back home and give up on being with the friends I had just made. I hated to cry, but I cried all the time. For that I was called crybaby, and I cried for that too.
Farewells for the Better
It consoles me now, reading Acts 20, that I am not alone in my weeping at farewells. I wonder, though, what Paul’s farewell and my many childhood partings may have had in common. They were both missionary actions. But I see now what I scarcely appreciated then, that the great apostle, and Jesus before him, and my dear father long after him, had things to do and places to go before they could sing “Never Part Again.” There was service and sacrifice to which they were so committed that nothing could dissuade them from their duty to go forward—not even the hurt and regret at having to leave love behind. “It is to your advantage that I go,” Jesus said to His distressed disciples (John 16:7).7 It was the best sense of “goodbye.” “God will be with you,” He was saying. “My Colleague the Parakletos is coming in My stead” (see verses 7-15). Meanwhile, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you” I will come back here to take you to that wonderful new there where we shall always be together (John 14:2, 3). You may not get all the joy you long for at Mr. Ochs’ Times Square “Happy New Year” parties, intense as those may be. In fact, missing Me, sighing for more than midnight parties can offer, longing to fill the fainting souls painted over by so many smiley faces, “you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy” (John 16:20). No, you are not a killjoy. You just know of a better country, a heavenly one. And because the glitter of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles and 32,256 energy efficient lights in Times Square’s ball8 do not distract you from your focus on heavenly glory, I am not ashamed to be called your God. I am preparing a city for you, and it will be soon yours (see Heb. 11:16). Something better will come out of this parting.
Whether he was correct or not, Paul was just as sure that his Miletus farewell was for the better. His Jerusalem-bound resolve is still a great enigma. The Holy Spirit warned him of the consequences of going (Acts 20:23), and seems to have urged him through Agabus not to go (Acts 21:10-12). But what others heard as dissuasion Paul heard as destiny: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (verse 13). He was doing it for Jesus’ sake.
As a child I may not have felt great passion for my parents’ missionary commitment. And partings today are scarcely more appealing than they were in my yesteryears. My litany of goodbyes is by no means imposing, but I too have grieved. I have mourned the loss of things—the carefully stored valuables of my childhood. And more. I wasn’t even at home when it happened, but I wept when they told me that Rover, our half-bred German shepherd, had died. Thirty years later I wept when I came home from overseas to learn that my daughter’s French terrier-poodle had died. And I have said goodbye too, though they couldn’t hear me, to my ever-serving, ever-sacrificing missionary mom and dad.
But there is more to life than partings, and sorrow about losing, and yesterdays. Times Square on New Year’s Eve is not just a meeting about yesterday. Indeed, more than anything else, it is a fiesta about the future. For the 1 million plus gathered there on December 31, 2012, it will signify being present at those moments they deem to be the last of the year’s 366th day. But just as surely it will be about being present as the new day begins and the new year dawns. When hundreds of thousands of voices sing “Auld Lang Syne” again and again, at multiple midnights, as NBC’s tape-delayed program winds its way west across the continent, they will not just be singing about old time’s sake. They will, far, far more, be thrilling, and yelling, and dancing for the joy of something new, something they wish and hope and pray will be better than what has just passed, better than their yesterday, better, why not, than anything they have ever known before. They will be twirling and screaming, and tossing scarves and hats and berets into the air for a happy new year!
Paul and my awesome dad will never stand in Times Square on a New Year’s Eve. They will never join the millions who sing, and the billion who watch and join in singing “Auld Lang Syne.” They will not be there on December 31, 2012, to cry out “Happy New Year!” to everyone everywhere, and no one in particular. They will not stand and watch and sing in December 31, 2012, because they have already said their last goodbye to us. They have gone on and wished us a blessing, “God be with ye.”
Happy New There!
But there is one more reason they will not. They will not because they do not need to. They have run a good race, fought a good fight, finished their course, and kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7). The sad farewells that mission, life, and God have asked of them were in exchange for an infinite prize God Himself gives—a crown of righteousness that waits not only for them but for every one of us who loves the appearing of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ (verse 8). Their sometimes painful farewells were the stuff of service and ministry, rather than momentarily giddy (even inebriated) glee. But those goodbyes have guaranteed for many more than themselves an infinitely more gloriously meaningful new year: a “new there” far beyond the confines of Times Square, and the city and state of New York.
The party they lived to anticipate did not begin with Adolph Ochs. And the publication behind its celebration is uniquely sacred, rather than one more outstanding, secular, city periodical. The publisher of this news is divine. Earth’s annual exultations involve multiple midnights across our little globe with its dozens of time zones, and the desperate repetition and frustration of hapless wishes from year to year. By contrast, the effectiveness of this operation is absolute, its scope is universal, and the occasion of its celebration is once and for ever and ever.
Instead of taking over a skyscraper, this gospel publisher took over a skull-shaped hill. He set up, not a ball to drop, again and again and again, in a regeneration of giddy excitement and hollow hope, but a cross where He would hang just once. When they counted Him out and took Him down, it was the end of all counting. He had already completed all the calculations and declared “It is finished!” There was nothing left to measure or repeat. He had fixed all the problems of the dying year and guaranteed the perfection of the next. All who now believe in Him will not perish, but will share with Him in the glories of another city, His perfect one, not New York here, but the New Jerusalem there. It is a city where the saints of all the ages, Paul of Tarsus, Riley Caesar of Bara Cara, and the rest, from Abel and Adam and Eve to Esther and Zacchaeus and Steve, everyone who has trusted in the merits of His grace and gone forward with Him, whatever the cost in goodbyes, will meet with Him from Sabbath to Sabbath in the square before His throne, and revel in glories that will never, ever end. What a happy new there that will be.
So: Happy New Year, Review reader. Happy and blessed 2013. Happy New Year. May you live every moment of it in anticipation of and preparation for that other, and infinitely glorious, city: Happy New There!
5 “History of New Year’s Eve,” in www.timessquare nyc.org/events/new-years-eve/history/index.aspx
6 William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene 2, line 185.
7 Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review who anticipates joyously the Happy New There! This article was published December 27, 2012.