By Jean McCurdy Meade
The founders of the monastic movements of the Middle Ages often used the metaphor of a monastery or convent as an enclosure from the world in which God could reveal a ladder to and from heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. That is, of course, the vision Jacob has in Genesis 28:10-17 as he is fleeing his brother Esau’s wrath to return to his mother’s homeland.
Jacob left Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; … Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Jesus takes this image and applies it to himself in John 1:49-51:
Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Jesus is the ladder and we are invited to begin climbing it as we follow him. We can think of the sacraments as the rungs of the ladder, given to us by our Lord through his Church as sure ways to follow him. If we follow, we will arrive!
First comes baptism. Jesus himself insisted on being baptized for the forgiveness of sins by his kinsman John, who first exclaimed that Jesus should be baptizing him instead. John tells his followers that the one who is coming after him (Jesus of Nazareth) will baptize with the Holy Spirit, not just water, but consents to baptize Jesus with water along with everyone else who came out to hear him preach and be baptized by him. Jesus says that this is to fulfill all righteousness, and there are many interpretations of what that means. But I find compelling the view that that Jesus, the sinless one, is confirming his solidarity with his fellow human beings.
The second point about Jesus’ baptism is that, as he comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit appears then and there, descending from heaven in the form of a dove as a voice proclaims, “This is my Son, the beloved. With whom I am well pleased.” The accounts differ slightly, but all four Gospels agree that Jesus’ baptism by John is accompanied by the acclamation of the Holy Spirit and that this is the beginning of his public ministry.
We are told that during this time Jesus’ disciples baptized but that he did not. However, after the resurrection and before his ascension, the risen Christ Jesus expressly told his disciples to go into all the world and baptize all people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That is his plan for the salvation of the nations — the response to hearing and believing the good news of Christ starts with baptism in water in the name of the Trinity. A wonderful example is from the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts: after listening to Philip explain the Scriptures, he says, “See, here is some water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip did so and he went on his way rejoicing!
It became fashionable in our time for a while to omit the traditional trinitarian formula and substitute a trio of characteristics or attributes instead: “the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Comforter” for example. That ignores the relational quality of the trinitarian persons, who are distinct from each other because of their relations of origin. It also ignores the principles of inseparable operations and of divine simplicity, which indicate that what can be said of one of the trinitarian persons can be said of each.
After one is baptized by water and the Holy Spirit in the name of the Trinity, one has set foot upon the ladder. How does one continue upward, growing into the Christian life? Well, one continues in the breaking of bread and in the prayers, following Jesus’ command to eat the bread he breaks and gives to his disciples, and drink of the wine he passes around at his Last Supper before his crucifixion “ in remembrance of me.”
What was a meal becomes a ritual separated from a meal in early Christian practice, but the bread and the wine, which symbolize Jesus’ body and blood in the words he spoke, are still the essential elements for fulfilling his commandment. We believe that Jesus is truly present in the blessed bread and wine, as he promised he would be.
Bread and wine are the essential elements for Holy Communion. In Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, the Catholic priest, who is hiding from the Mexican soldiers with orders to kill him, keeps searching for some wine so he can celebrate Mass. Christians vary in how they celebrate the Last Supper, and in whether they use wine or grape juice, but they almost all do it, Quakers being a notable exception. The Orthodox give communion to newly baptized infants, while other traditions hold off giving this sacrament to children until they eat at the family table, or have some conception of what is going on, or even until after they are confirmed. Holy Communion, then, is the second and essential rung of the ladder. With these two, one can be assured of the presence of Christ helping us up the ladder at every step.
But after the two sacraments clearly commanded by Jesus, what are the other sacramental rites that Episcopalians and other branches of Christendom observe and how do they fit into this image of a ladder? There are five of these, and they can be understood as ways to continue in the faith, given the necessities of living in this world until the coming of our Lord. We can slip and lose our footing in this life, but we have the assurance of Christ’s presence with us as we regroup and carry on. The first of these is confirmation, which was originally a part of baptism. As our prayer book explains, if you are baptized as a very young child, you should have opportunity to confirm your decision to follow Christ. As my 14-year-old grandson said recently, “When am I going to be confirmed? I want to be!”
In addition to the opportunity to study and then publicly confess our faith, confirmation gives us the connection to the Communion of Saints in this world in the person of the bishop. She or he performs this rite on behalf of the whole Church in heaven and on Earth with the laying on of hands that goes back to the original apostles of our Lord. It is not just a local parish affair to be confirmed! It is another rung on the ladder. It gives a firm foothold indeed, especially important as a young person starts to set out into the world more and more independently.
The next two rites have to do with God’s call to a mature follower of Christ: Ordination and Holy Matrimony. Not everyone is called to either state, but each is a calling, a lifelong vocation. Some traditions hold these two callings to be mutually exclusive, but Episcopalians do not. One can be married and ordained as a deacon, priest, and bishop. Ordination is the climax of a period of discernment by the candidate and the Church of a person’s suitability to lead others to and up the ladder! It is not a reward for piety or intelligence or valuable service to the Church. The duties of each order or ministry are outlined in the prayer book, but the clear understanding is that God has called this person to a life of service in his name to all people, according to the teachings of the Church.
Marriage, on the other hand, is an intensely personal decision to bind oneself to another human being of the opposite sex — someone very different but also made in the image of God — to fulfill God’s first command in all Creation, “be fruitful and multiply,” and to fulfill God’s desire that the man — or woman — should not be alone. Not all marriages can or do produce children because of various problems, age, or infirmities, but each marriage is called to be an icon of God’s hospitality to all his children and to reflect the love of Christ for his bride, the Church.
We are not all called to marriage, and the celibate life can be seen as an icon of the coming kingdom of heaven, in which there will be no marrying or giving in marriage. Jesus and his disciple St. Paul exemplified this life of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God. There is another rung on the ladder for those who find their true calling to marriage or vowed celibacy.
The final two sacramental rites have to do with the reality of sin, sorrow, and sickness in this world. We follow Christ, but we still sin and fall short. As St. Paul writes in Romans 7:18b-24:
I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Paul adds that Christ Jesus can and does deliver us from our bondage to sin, but sometimes our consciences cannot be cleared without help. Sometimes we need assurance from the Church that our sins are forgiven. And that is where confession, or the Reconciliation of a Penitent, comes in. This rung on the ladder is not required in the Anglican tradition, but is available for those who desire it (“All may, none must, some should”). One of the duties of a priest or bishop is to hear the confession of a penitent and assure the person of God’s forgiveness — to put the penitent’s feet back securely on the ladder, as it were.
Finally, we all know we get sick. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry healing the sick as a sign that the kingdom had drawn near. We are to continue his ministry, in hospitals and homes or wherever we find the sick and wounded. That is where the rite of anointing the sick comes in. By the laying of hands and anointing with oil blessed by the bishop, the minister assures the person of God’s desire for life and wholeness for all his children, and of the prayers of the Church for the sick and suffering. We know we are all going to die someday, but we still regard sickness and wounding as evils from which we pray to be delivered.
Anointing is no longer considered the last rite before death but a rite of healing to restore the sick person to health. Once, when I visited a man who was in the last stages of his illness, I used this service of anointing. The next day he had an amazing relief of his weakness and was able to settle his affairs, have meaningful talks with his family, and was “at peace” with his coming death, which came two days later. The rite of anointing for health and wholeness was indeed efficacious, even though his illness was indeed terminal. The prayer concluding the service of anointing emphasizes Christ as the true source of all healing and salvation:
The Almighty Lord, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow down and obey: Be now and evermore your defense, and make you know and feel that the only Name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Thus, the last rung on the ladder connecting heaven and earth reminds us that it is Jesus himself defending us, holding us, and assuring us of his presence with us in our physical weakness as well as our spiritual weakness, even to the end of our lives, when we can no longer hope to climb on our own.
As we sing in the African-American spiritual, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the Cross.” One way to think of this climb of faith is by considering the two dominical sacraments and the traditional five sacramental rites as rungs on the ladder — not the only ones, but efficacious, tried and true throughout the Church, generation after generation.