The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Ascension - Evening Prayer Online      21st May 2020
Earth is 'heaven-bent'
Ayla Lepine

Psalm 8
2 Kings 2.1-15
Revelation 5

Our readings speak into the silent wonder that we feel when we catch a glimpse, just the smallest shard in a pinprick of light, of what God can do. They also speak into the silent bewilderment of being totally out of our depth.
The psalmist is, for all the majestic language, enchantedly confused. How could God cherish humanity so much? We’re frail, often making hideous mistakes, weighed down by our limitations and decisions. We are also gloriously and beautifully made, each one of us created and cared for by a God who loves us. If we read superficially, the psalm is about the raw power God gave to humanity so that we could rule the earth and rank highly in the authority structure of heaven, like cosmic COOs with high salaries at God PLC. It is the position of the psalmist, as one who wonders, that can teach us much more deeply about why human beings exist at all, and how that relates to God’s own power, and the love of Christ shown through the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Ascension.
The purpose of being human is to love and be loved. Take care of one another, take care of creation, and expand out the horizon of our hearts to be in deeper relationship with God. This seems to be the pulse at the core of the psalm. 
When we consider this in relation to Elisha and Elijah, the core of being human touches the divine in a new way. This becomes evident not just in the interactions between Elijah and Elisha, but also between Elisha and the prophets. Elisha is heartbroken. He clings to Elijah and will not leave him. There are resonances with Ruth and Naomi, when Ruth says: ‘Do not urge me to leave you… Where you go, I will go’. There are resonances with Mary Magdalene in the garden on the morning of the Resurrection, when her Lord is revealed to her as he speaks Mary’s name. Mary Magdalene wants Jesus to stay. He knows that he will not. She does too, despite the anguish of this double separation.
The gift hidden in the grief of saying goodbye is in accepting that a better future is possible. Elisha, Ruth, and Mary Magdalene are wonderfully human because they want, so much, more than anything, to stay within the loving bonds of the most profound relationship they’ve got. For all of them, something better is to come precisely through the transformation of that relationship. God is at work. Something new, something indescribably better, something even more real than this authentic love is possible. It may not be speakable or imaginable, but it is possible.
The prophets speak to Elisha twice, checking to make sure that he knows his beloved Elijah will die. His reponse is curt and swift. ‘I know. Don’t talk about it.’ ‘Please, do not speak into the wound of grief that’s devouring me,’ he seems to say. After Elijah is taken up by God into heaven, Elisha’s grief tears apart his own clothes, and he receives the blessing of Elijah and of God. Renewed, recognised as spiritually strengthened, the prophets no longer question him about his pain or about God’s actions. They revere him. Because his transformed life is a sign of God’s presence.
In the Ascension, Jesus’ transformed life transforms the world. The arc of the earth becomes bent towards the prospect of heaven. The work of the Incarnation continues within the heart of every human being. The purpose of life, to love and be loved in relationship with God, carries onwards into heaven itself. Because of the Ascension, we dare to call God our Father, and we know we are within the sacred heart of Jesus. After 40 days of appearing to his friends, speaking peace into the fearful silence, and daring those around him to believe God’s impossible truth, Jesus ascends. This is not a mystical elevator. This is pure glory, a sign of heaven’s radiance present for a damaged world.
The seventeenth-century poet Angelus Silesius described the Incarnation like this:
‘Heaven humbles herself, towards earth makes its descent.’
The next line invokes the Ascension, turning our eyes and hearts towards eternity. Silesius writes:
‘When will the earth arise and become heaven-bent?’
At Christ’s birth, heaven touches earth.
At the Ascension, earth touches heaven.
As the Lamb is worshipped in songs of everlasting praise, surrounded by the pulsating visions of the heavenly host, the saints, the angels, and all God’s holy glory, there is blessing, honour, glory, power, and the greatest intensity of words and images that the author of Revelation could offer. Because of Christ’s humility in the self-offering of love, once and for all, the gates of heaven are open. Christ’s Ascension brings us into God’s own arms.
At a time when months have passed since it’s been possible to embrace, to be close, to offer the comfort and the companionship we would wish with one another, the image of the Father’s tender embrace of his Son, brought home into heaven, gives us a sign that beyond our present reality there is a better world, on earth and in heaven.
I’d like to finish with a poem written a few days ago by Tracey Sheppard, who is a glass engraver. As an artist, her medium is light itself. Here’s her poem, about the pandemic, which I’d like to suggest is also a poem about the Ascension:
Locked down. Locked up. 
Locked in - Fermez. 
Look up. Look out. 
Breathe in- Ouvrez.

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