by Ryan Grove
When I was little, someone gave me a picture book about angels. In the story, a young boy dies tragically of an illness. His spirit rises up out of his body, and is quickly carried away, through the ceiling and into the sky. He arrives in the clouds, and looking around, he sees a bunch of people dressed in white, lounging around. The place is spotless, brilliant white, and the people are all stunning in their beauty. They all have great big bird wings, and a few inches above each of their heads, hangs a bright circlet gold. The boy reaches for his back, and above his head, and is dismayed to realize he has no wings, and is lacking a halo. For the rest of the story, he explores the celestial sphere seeking his due angelic accouterments.
This story captivated me. It grabbed my small mind and dug its way deep in there. For years, this was my image of heaven. This was my vision of the kingdom. Clouds against the bluest sky, angels and wings and halos. Possibly endearing, definitely bogus, and certainly heretical, this book, and others like it, shaped my imagination. It wove its net around how I thought about this world, and the world to come.
And when I first read about the Ascension, it was into this net that I placed the story. Luke tells us that “While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” I know exactly what that means. Jesus’ spirit rises up, just like that little boy’s, and he flies upwards and into the clouds. Heaven. Life after death. Hope.
But as I grew older, and more critical, and as I experienced loss, and death, and brokenness, that net began to weaken, and crumble. The hope of one day lounging on clouds flickered and faded. My reason and logic kicked in and I quickly jettisoned the entire thing, along with any other hokey junk that was tied up with it, including Jesus. Whoever gave me that book had the best intentions, but inadvertently ended up placing heaven, and God, and Jesus in the same realm with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, nice stories we tell children to help them sleep.
While I rejected that vision of heaven, I never realized how deeply that story, and others like it, embedded their way into my imagination. Ideas about the depravity of flesh, and the purity of spirit. Ideas about where to locate my identity. Ideas about the shamefulness of human bodies. These stories teach us that we are not the fleshy husks we are forced to inhabit, that we are prisoners in our own skin, and true freedom, true enlightenment, lies somewhere else entirely.
When Adam bit the forbidden fruit, he cast a divide between heaven and earth. He drove a wedge between humanity and God; and he set us off looking for identity in all the wrong places. No longer known in the presence of God, we are drawn elsewhere to find our identity. We seek to find ourselves, in ourselves, and end up lonely, and broken, and wishing to leave this world behind.
Ever since Adam, people have sought to escape their bodies, to find enlightenment and freedom beyond the disappointments of the flesh. And now technology has allowed us space to live out actual, disembodied lives. Places where we can leave the limitations, and letdowns, of our bodies behind. Places where we can express our real selves, our ideal selves. Myself made in my own image. My life drawn by my own hand. Blemishes removed, excess fat trimmed, annoying habits subdued. The internet has given us what we always wanted, but it has not made us any happier, and now we, like the angel boy, wander among the clouds, searching for our wings.