Acts 1 Why are you standing looking up towards heaven?

Fr Alec
Sunday, June 1, 2014 - 9:30am

The poet Philip Larkin was at his best when he was miserable. Nobody can match his dry wit and unflinchingly merciless clarity when he turned his attention to themes like boredom, discontent, regret, bitterness and ennui. When asked why so much of his verse seemed to be so negative he said this:


‘Happiness writes white.’


His point being that positive feelings rarely have the kind of impact that makes for good poetry, whereas life’s harder side creates dramatic tension and casts the kind of shadows which can be shaped and manipulated into art.


Now this is not a very original idea, and we might very easily take issue with it, but it does, I think, contain an element of truth. It perhaps explains why the reader of Dante’s Divine Comedy can cheerfully romp through the farting demons and woebegone shades of Hell in the Inferno, but rapidly loses interest as the poet ascends through the tediously righteous spheres of Heaven in Paradiso. Similarly, if ever we sit down to read Paradise Lost we can almost feel Milton’s pulse quickening as he gets on to the passages that deal with Satan.


Perhaps we can just identify better with Hell- we have, as it were more raw material to work with in the world around us, whereas we only perceive fleeting glimpses of heaven in our daily experience.  Heaven, generally speaking, is harder to get a grip on, and though we might let our minds run riot to create a seething Hieronimus Bosch-style picture of Hades, we all too often find ourselves reaching for clichés of fluffy clouds and cherubs with harps when we cast our eyes upwards. What do we mean, I wonder, when we talk about Heaven?


If we look, for example, at the ancient Hebrew understanding of heaven we discover a fascinatingly complicated picture. On the one hand, the word for heaven is shamayyim, which means something like ‘the upper waters’ (as distinct from the sea). This is what we might mean by the sky, or ‘the heavens’. The idea was that the waters were held back from the world by a kind of dome. When the heavens opened, this was the flood of Noah that we remember so well from primary school.


Though this idea of heaven may seem strange and rather naïve to our jaded twenty-first century eyes, it touches on a number of things that are relevant to our ideas of heaven. First, the idea that it is up in the sky. Though we may not literally believe that Heaven is ‘up there’, nevertheless, the limitless depth of the sky gives us a sense that we are surrounded by an infinite and untouched vastness. Secondly there is the connected idea that we are separated from heaven, that it is a place entirely other from the everyday world we inhabit.


Developing these ideas, Hebrew prophets like Ezekiel present us with an almost psychedelically poetic vision of a heaven far removed from human experience, using language that stretches and fumbles beyond the limits of what it can express. Here we find a distant, Holy, magnificent God, seated like potentate upon his throne, presiding over the Universe. Here we begin to perceive the outlines of a heaven that exists beyond the material world- outside time and experience. Of God who is king of an infinite majesty. Heaven is where God is.


However, I’m not sure that the popular imagination works entirely on these lines. Heaven, I think, for many of us, is that place we go to when we die. I think it is commonly understood as a place for our soul or spirit to go when we are separated from our material body. By extension it becomes the object of a lot of rather hedonistic wishful thinking: a place of chocolate fountains and golden palaces, where we will be young and beautiful again. Nevertheless, I think for most people Heaven is still very much somewhere else.


Yet the life of Jesus changes the way in which we understand Heaven. Because in Jesus, God takes on humanity and dwells amongst his creation. What is more, he proclaims that ‘the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.’ God is establishing his authority in the here and now. Heaven has bent down to earth and we have been granted a vision of how things could be…of how things will be when God through Christ establishes direct authority over all his works.


Heaven becomes the place where we put our future hopes, and see the pain and injustice of life reversed. When God is all and in all, justice will be done and righteousness rewarded- pain will end and sorrow cease. In Jesus, Heaven is now, but also Not Yet.


When we celebrated the Ascension on Thursday, we joined Jesus’ disciples in their awestruck wonder as the risen Christ returned to sit at the right hand of his Father. Jesus, their friend, whom they knew, who they sat and ate with, and joked with, who had suffered so much for them was taken up, into heaven, not in some airy spiritual form, but as flesh and blood, body and soul, carrying the wounds on his hands and feet that demonstrated his continuing love.


Heaven, he showed them, is a place for us. For human beings in all their fullness. With all their material lumps and bumps, with all their wounds. A place where these things will not disappear, but will be transfigured into something new, something more complete. Where humanity will not dissolve away, but be fulfilled and perfected.

Jesus’ Ascension showed us all that our proper place, our true destination, our real home is with God. What is more, the Angels’ promise points towards the day when Jesus’ return will herald a New Heaven and a New Earth – a creation in perfect relationship with its creator. Until then we await the promised Spirit, the guarantee that Jesus has kept his word: ‘I will be with you always, until the end of the age.’