On the third Sunday of Advent we come, as we consider the Four Last Things, to Heaven.
Of all the Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell – I would wager that heaven is the one that we find the most approachable. The pages of scripture, as with the images and language of art and popular culture, are full of predictions and perceptions of what heaven might look like.
For me one of the most powerful of these comes in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death. The film, if you don’t know it, begins with Peter, played by David Niven, piloting his stricken Lancaster bomber surrounded by the bodies of his dead crew mates. Comforted by the words of an American ground controller named June, Peter prepares himself for what he believes will be his inevitable death. However, an administrative error by the authorities in heaven means that Peter is not collected by Heavenly Conductor 71 and so cheats death, waking on a beach of southern England. There he meets and falls in love with June.
Confronted by this angelic clerical error Peter refuses to leave and so a heavenly tribunal is called to assess his case. This tribunal is grounded in reality by the brain operation Peter undergoes as a result of his injuries. The drama then plays out with the heavenly court – filmed in black and white – cross cutting with the drama of Peter’s operation filmed in colour.
A Matter of Life and Death is a visually stunning film which presents us with an arresting image of the hereafter. The opening sequence counterpoints Peter’s vain attempt to steer his damaged bomber with the steady arrival of his comrades into the arrival lounge heaven. This has added power as this arrival lounge is full of a stream of young people of all races arriving in the uniforms of the Second World War.
However the most visually arresting image of the film is the great moving staircase where Peter, and his heavenly contact Controller 71, play out the pros and cons of his case as he hovers, on this stairway to heaven, between life and death.
This image of heaven as a place without limitation is important as we consider the Four Last Things. We are, in essence, in the Four Last Things considering our own limitations. The limitations of our life and death, the limitations of our actions and judgement. If many of these are perhaps drawn in an exacting light, then in heaven we come to consider these limitations in a more pastoral manner. When we consider the promise of life after death it is natural that this is drawn in contrast to the limitations of this life. So heaven becomes, above all, a place where our earthly limitations are put aside.
In the prayers and liturgies for funerals we constantly circle around this contrast and language, in one prayer invoking the hope of an existence beyond earthly limitations, where ‘all pain and suffering is ended, and death itself is conquered.’
In our reading today from the prophesies of Isaiah we find this great image of an existence beyond limitation played out in poetic terms.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
This vision of a future released from limitations is at the heart of the prophesies of Isaiah. In this complex book the promise of release returns again and again. This promise of release fills the prophetic utterances and poems, written over centuries, which come together in the book of Isaiah. What binds them together is their response to the historic trauma of the Babylonian exile.
The structure of the book of Isaiah then reflects this developing response to the trauma of the exile. Not written by one author, the book moves through a series of related parts which deepen our understanding of God's promise to his people. The first part – First Isaiah – works through the deep grief of the exile and the destruction of Jerusalem. The second part - Second Isaiah - reconciled to this grief, explores the deeper hope that God might offer to his chosen people. At its heart is a deep yearning to return from exile, but this is mirrored with a deeper hope that this salvation will be completed on a cosmic scale beyond the end of time.
Like in Powell and Pressburger’s film this promise lies at the end of a pathway, but instead of being a great moving stairway moving towards heaven it is highway drawing the exiled people of Israel through the desert to their final destination.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
This highway has a double meaning. Like the moving stairway, we can read this highway as a route to the salvation God offers us on the other side of time. But, unlike Powell and Pressburger's stairway to heaven, this highway also carried a message for us here and now. Promising, as it did, to lead the exiled people of Israel back from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem.
The hidden tragedy of this vision is that it is so powerful, so ecstatic, that cannot believe that it could be part of our experience here and now. And so, we push it beyond our earthly experience into a future possibility on the other side of time. And we give that promise a name, heaven.
But in Advent we wait and watch for a promise which is not pushed far off into the future, but a promise which will burst into our present experience. It is a promise which draws us onto that highway, and towards that transformation God seeks for us not far off into the future, but beginning here and now.
In the climax of A Matter of Life of Death we are given a glimpse of the true form of that promise we seek today. In the final moments of the film the two narratives – the heavenly trial and earthly operation – collapse in on each other. As Peter’s trial reaches its climax June, who had been watching every moment of the operation, is brought in front of the heavenly judge and jury who stand at the foot of that great moving stairway which has broken through into our reality, rooted in the operating theatre.
There, in the face of questioning, June secures Peter’s life not by the force of her testimony but by offering to step onto that stairway in his place. This decisive sacrifice breaks down the division between heaven and earth, and Peter is reprieved to live again on earth with June. And that victory is won not by rules, or argument, but by love.
As we wait and watch for the coming promise we do not wait and watch for an idea or a rule; we wait and watch for the gift of love which draws the great promise of heaven into our reality. We wait for that promise of love which shows how we might be transformed by God’s love to live without those limitations of grief or fear or regret which bind our lives today. In this Advent season we wait for heaven and earth to come together through the promise of that love which will come down at Christmas.