Learning Time for Ascension Sunday at Harrow United Church

Video: The Ascension of Mary Poppins

Learning Time: “Tales of Mystery and Imagination”

Did you remember the ending of Mary Poppins? The effects seem hoaky, compared with what is done in our time. Mary Poppins flies above the smoky clouds of London, as the credits roll on the screen.

Mary Poppins is a magical nanny who appeared in an upper middle class English household just when they needed her most. She came sailing on the wind, literally, floating through the air, upheld by her umbrella. Very mysterious, with a hint that amazing things will happen.

With messages of love and adventure and openness to new experience and new people, she nurtured Jane and Michael, the two Banks children.  They were transformed from brattish hellions into loving, kind, and generous young people. 

Much of this miracle happened because of the effect Mary Poppins had on their Mother and Father. She helped them look upon their children with love rather than mere tolerance, and re-discover the delight of actually spending time with them. 

Along the way there was magic and singing and dancing, and humour. These were the spoonful of sugar needed for the audience to swallow the medicine, or the moral of the story. If parents don’t actively love their kids, they may lose them.

By the end, the Banks family gets along famously, having been saved by the message of love. Mary Poppins’ work is done, and it is time for her to leave. It is time for them to carry on, with all that she has taught them, and with the spirit of love that gave life to her teaching.

Where was she going? In the movie she was very much a Christ figure, one who brought a message of love, reconciliation, tolerance and openness to differences in people. So where does she go at the end? Up into the sky. Heavenward. A mysterious end to match the mysterious beginning.

That amazing departure works in the movie, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. It even kind of works in the stories about Elijah and Jesus, again, as long as you don’t think too hard.

In the case of the prophet Elijah, he was walking and talking with his protégé, Elisha, when “suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” No umbrella required.

Just before that happened, Elijah had asked Elisha what he could do for him. Elisha asked his teacher for a double portion of his spirit. Elisha wanted to know that somehow, Elijah would still be with him, helping him with the work of being a spiritual leader.

In the Gospel of Luke story about Jesus taking his leave, Jesus said he would send the disciples what his heavenly father had promised. They were to stay together until they were clothed with power from on high. That phrase “being clothed” is a clever, literary allusion to the story about Elijah and his follower Elisha, who picks up a cloak, also called a mantle, that belonged to Elijah.

In the reading from Acts the instructions are more detailed. Jesus told his followers to stay in Jerusalem until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Next week we will hear the story of Pentecost, which describes this promised moment, when the Spirit touched and energized Jesus’ followers, and a great crowd of others in Jerusalem.)

In both versions of the story about Jesus leaving, after he makes his promise, Jesus is described as being taken up into the sky. In Acts it says a cloud hid Jesus from the sight of his followers.  Then the disciples suddenly saw two men dressed in white standing beside them. The strangers asked, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Good question.

 There are many ancient stories of kings, heroes, prophets or holy men who are taken up into the realm of the gods, at the end of their earthly lives. It was a way of saying they were divinely blessed, and their message would live on.

In the ancient world, people imagined the earth, and the universe around it very differently than we do. They had what I sometimes call the “layer cake” view. Our world was the middle layer. Hell was the layer below, and heaven, the realm of the gods, was right above.

With this cosmology, this understanding of the architecture of the universe, it made perfect sense to talk about a hero descending into the depths of Hades, or ascending bodily into heaven.

When we talk about Heaven being up, and Hell being down, we are usually being poetic. Satellites orbit the earth, and rockets pierce the dome of the sky, and people have gone to the moon. It’s hard to imagine heaven as a physical place over our heads. It’s hard to read these stories as literally true.

So how do we think about this? Where did Elijah go? Where is Jesus?  A downfall of thinking of heaven as a location is that literal-ness reduces reality to things we can see. It leaves out the possibility that there are things that are real, that we can’t see.

Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue once said that rather than thinking of the human body as the vessel that carries around a little thing inside us we call a soul, maybe instead, our human bodies are surrounded by something like a force, or energy, that is bigger than our bodies. Maybe instead of our body carrying around the soul, our soul actually envelops our bodies.

In his lovely book “To Bless the Space Between Us”, O’Donohue quoted another mystic, a fourteenth century philosopher and theologian named Meister Eckhart.

“Meister Eckhart was once asked, Where does the soul of a person go when the person dies? He said, no place. Where else would the soul be going? Where else is the eternal world? It can be nowhere other than here. 

We have falsely spatialized the eternal world. We have driven the eternal out into some kind of distant galaxy. Yet the eternal world does not seem to be a place but rather a different state of being. 

The soul of the person goes no place because there is no place else to go. This suggests that the dead are here with us, in the air that we are moving through all the time. The only difference between us and the dead is that they are now in an invisible form. 

You cannot see them with the human eye. But you can sense the presence of those you love who have died. With the refinement of your soul, you can sense them. You feel that they are near.”

This may be just another form of poetry, but it sits better with me than the idea of a chariot of fire carrying Elijah up into the sky. 

Scientists now tell us that nothing can ever really be destroyed. Things change form, but the matter and the energy that make up our bodies continue to exist, in one state of being or another. Perhaps we don’t really go anywhere physically when we die. 

The visible parts of us, our bodies, may change form, but the invisible parts of us, our souls, thoughts, feelings, still exist, held safely by God, in God’s universe, which is all around us.

Perhaps Elijah and Jesus never really left and these Bible stories about them mysteriously disappearing into the sky were the best poetry the people had in their time, to talk about how even when their bodies failed them, their souls, their spirits, carry on. Amen

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