All religions attest to the ‘gathering at the river.’ Each of us is there, a bit scared, baggage on our backs, waiting our turn to cross over to total freedom and love. At least that’s the analogy that enslaved people used to describe dying in the wonderful spiritual, We Will Gather at the River.
But I see the hymn as a kind of analogy for the family reunion, or a reunion of any kind. When I walk Lily in our Metropark on weekends, there are many reunions in progress. Laughing and shouting accompany volleyball games, horse shoe and cornhole competitions, and touch football. Someone is grilling the food; someone is setting the picnic table with flowers and plates and beverages. Everyone is happy.
Every reunion is happy. Even if we dreaded attending it, we almost always come away excited and happy. We haven’t seen a cousin or aunt or uncle in ages; we have never met some of our grand nieces and nephews. We are suddenly aware that our family is a community that God called together through the love of parents and grandparents and we stand in awe that we are here – right now – holding hands across divides that separated us for years. The same genes and blood flow through all of us at a family reunion. A friend recently shared her pictures made into a memory book of this summer’s reunion. I was immediately struck by the smiles of the adults and the comic antics of the children. A big happy family, of which she is the matriarch, caught forever in time on a rickety, weather-beaten bridge over a creek in North Carolina with the ocean in the background. No river in sight, but these fortunate people were still standing at the river of God’s love.
I was also reminded of the importance of reunions last weekend when I attended a reunion of women I had taught and who graduated from our school 51 years ago! Covid restrictions in place, I entered the room and stood in amazement: They sounded like the teen-agers I had taught all four years of their high school education! I am now the only living teacher from that era, so they were excited to welcome me. They were happy women sharing the camaraderie of their high school escapades: sneaking cigarettes in the woods adjacent to the school; skating on the pond before classes, placing alarm clocks in every homeroom wastebasket to go off at the same time on April 1! They managed secret overnight sleepovers in the shower rooms and were terrified when our watchdog sniffed at the door preventing them from getting food at the vending machines. They stumbled through the recitation of Shakespeare’s soliloquies and theorems in geometry. They recalled it all during this glorious reunion peppered with uproarious laughter at pictures of proms and club activities and old cars and old boyfriends.
I walked with some of these women over the years when divorce or death or health collapsed their idyllic lives into sad reality. The night I saw them, they were ebullient, their eyes and smiles riding the night’s breeze as once again, they were young and adventurous and without a care. They welcomed each other, and, despite differences, they had one thing in common: a love for their high school, their teachers, their friends and their four years of becoming aware of God’s caring love for them. They were standing at the river of reunion and God was there.
Jesus loved community gatherings. Wherever he went, crowds of people followed. They were his classes during his teaching ministry. They gathered on hillsides for the Beatitudes, on a lake shore when he taught from a boat, in a large meadow where he fed them the loaves and fishes. They trailed him hanging on to his every word and even the hem of his garment. He teased them out of trees, as he did Zacchaeus; he met them over supper in the crowded house of a Pharisee and ate and drank with them at a wedding feast.
People are different at reunions; they are more apt to listen to each other. This is because they share a common interest like a bonding of four years together or shared heritage say sociologists. Essentially, they are not strangers. Jesus was trying to get his crowds to see their connectedness. Jesus was holding reunions of God’s love. He wanted them to see they were not strangers to each other! They were connected in God’s love. This connectedness would spill over into care for each other. Every reunion in our lives, every gathering at the river, is a reunion of God’s love.
This coming week why not reflect on The Miracle of Loaves and Fishes (Mk 6:34-44), The Great Discourse (Lk 6:17-26; 27-49), The Wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-12) and any other sections you can find in which Jesus addresses a crowd.
I suggest you listen to YouTube versions of We Will Gather at the River and reflect on the gift of reunions. We will all have one some day on the other side of the river.