This week I’ve had a recurring earworm – one of those songs that gets into your head and stays there stubbornly, no matter what else you are doing or thinking about. This week’s song, inexplicably, is from the musical Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat, and is sung by the brothers as they tell their father the fib that Joseph has been killed. The repeated lyric that has returned to me without mercy this week is: ‘there’s one more angel in heaven, there’s one more star in the sky’… Now Tim Rice’s lyrics speak to the beliefs I hear from people all the time, but they have nothing to do with the beliefs that the real brothers would have held, with the beliefs of Jews or of Christians. If only Andrew Lloyd Webber’s tune wasn’t so catchy, I might not have had such poor theology singing out in my ear all week.
When we think about the ascension of Jesus into heaven, as we do this week, we are telling a story that points out exactly why the fate of the departed is not to become angels or stars. For a start, there is the practical stuff. Stars, we know, are giant superheated balls of gas. No-one who really thinks about death really believes that is their fate, surely – or wants it? Whatever Doctor Who might suggest (I’m referring to The Rings of Akhaten for the geeks) there are no sentient stars out there. Gas does not have life, feeling, purpose. And besides, when Jesus rose from the dead, he rose as one who had died, properly, and completely. The resurrection was not like the raising of Lazarus or the widow of Nain’s son. Jesus did not come back to a mortal life only to die again. Jesus died and returned to His Father in Heaven. He was resurrected, given the heavenly body that is greater than the human one, and in his resurrection demonstrated that heavenly life. The resurrected Jesus is not like a human as we understand it. We can’t go through locked doors, disappear and appear somewhere else miles away, and we certainly can’t choose to move between earth and heaven. Jesus made sure that a lot of people saw him – sometimes hundreds at a time – and not one reported that he had turned into a star or an angel! And since angels turned up and were recognised as such on the day Jesus rose and again on the day Jesus ascended into heaven, presumably it’s possible to tell the difference!
One reason that people get into this muddle is because we know that in heaven life is better and more glorious than it is here. So we imagine that a star or an angel is a better or more glorious thing. And because there is an understanding that somehow there can be contact between the inhabitants of heaven and those of earth – we can, after all, speak directly to Jesus and to Father God, who are both in heaven, and we believe they can hear and respond to us – so perhaps somehow we want that connection to be visual. By imagining the departed as stars, people for thousands of years have sought to make visual the connection between earth and heaven.
But the ascension shows us that however the connection to heaven works, it is not one we can see with our eyes. Jesus disappeared out of sight, and the angels made clear that it was no good LOOKING for him. He can’t be seen. He is real, he is present to us, he can hear our prayers, but we can’t see him until we too are in heaven. And once we are there, those we leave behind can’t see us, in any form. We are not angels, we are not stars, we are human still. But, as the resurrection of our Lord showed us, the form that humanity takes in heaven is somehow greater and better than the form it takes here. We can’t know what that will be like until we get there. We just have to trust in what Jesus showed us. There won’t be any more angels in heaven (God has enough), and no more stars in the sky – not sentient ones anyway – but one more human, fully alive and glorified in Jesus for every person who dies trusting in Him. That’s a theology that would bring Jacob far more comfort than the folk theology of this week’s earworm.