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Elijah’s 21st-century chariot

11 January 2019

Jonathan Still found one of this Sunday’s Old Testament readings brought suddenly to life


WHEN mortals tell of divine wonders, they must do so in earthbound picture analogy: thunder, fire, wind, and mighty terebinths stand in for the unspeakable and inexpressible.

As technology developed, the chariot and its wheels came to serve this function, as in the first chapter of Ezekiel. Wheels within wheels, wings and brazen limbs, intervening tongues of flame, form a mind-blowing image as the writers struggled to express the ground of all being.

A modern comparison might be the helicopter. It, too, has reciprocating motion, generates awe-inspiring noise, and can inspire wonder. For those who serve in our armed forces, the helicopter is often the means by which they enter the theatre of conflict. More importantly, however, when supplies are low, when darkness is approaching, when comrades are wounded or the position seems untenable, the sound of the approaching rotors brings the hope of relief, and signals the start of the journey home.

I recently attended the funeral of a young Marine. After the service, his six closest comrades bore his coffin from the church in the little village where he had grown up to his grave. They lowered the coffin hand over hand, then stood to attention at the graveside, their ramrod forms betrayed by their silent tears.

After the rifle company salutes, there was an extended silence. The wind curled a flag. I became aware of birdsong, and what a beautiful day it was, and what a tranquil resting-place. Then, in the distance a quiet “Bub-bub-bub-bub-bub” began to build insistently, louder and louder, until the ground beneath our feet vibrated. Suddenly, a Chinook helicopter with its distinctive, whirring double blades burst upon us, just clearing the trees surrounding the church.

I feared we would be swept away in its draught — but no, we stood, robes and air fluttering, as the great beast slowly drifted directly over the grave, paused and dipped its head in salute. Then it departed heavenwards, and as the tears clouded my eyes and ran down my cheeks, I felt rising within me the words of Elisha: “My father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel!”

Canon Jonathan Still is Vicar of Buckland Newton, Cerne Abbas, Godmanstone and Minterne Magna, and Rural Dean of Dorchester.

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