There is a curiosity about the two windows above the main door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the church that encloses both the site of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. On the ledge outside the windows is a wooden ladder leaning up against the wall and leading to the window on the right. No one knows for sure how it got there, but it has been there a long time, at least 300 years, with no purpose whatsoever.
The so-called “Immovable Ladder” is immovable as part of the Status Quo Agreement decreed by the Ottoman ruler of Jerusalem in the 18th century. To keep us Christians from our eternal bickering about what goes where inside the holy site, Sultan Osmann III decreed that there should be no alteration to the status quo inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—whoever controlled a certain area would remain in control and whatever was there would remain in the same location unless all the Christian churches involved agreed to a move. Thus, the Immovable Ladder is a seemingly eternal sign of the bickering way we Christians demonstrate our love for one another
Let me give you another metaphor for what I’m talking about, this one also from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To visit the tomb itself, it is necessary to bend over. It is impossible to be in the holiest of the church’s shrines without crouching down. That has, to be sure, always seemed right and appropriate to me. I’m now looking at it from another perspective, not the going in but the coming out. To come out of the holy tomb, it is almost impossible to avoid rising. I suppose it is possible to exit the tomb and stay on one’s knees, but having been there, I can tell you there is an almost unavoidable urge to stand upon getting through the door, if for no other reason than to relieve the pain in one’s back. And is this not as it should be? Just as on the first Easter morning, resurrection is a matter of rising, of rising.
The wood of the ladder above the door has come to remind me of the wood of the cross. Both have something to do with the death that inevitably follows the unwillingness to allow the new to break forth. Both are prisoners of the walls of the church, in this case the walls of the church which enclose the very rock of Calvary and have come to be governed by the status quo. Both are the symbols and results of religious authority protecting its privilege. I think this is why resurrection has an awfully hard time happening inside the church. In fact, I would go so far as to say it can only happen outside the church.
Rising is a necessary consequence of coming out of the tomb. Liberation is in coming out of the tomb, and I’m afraid out of the church, at least in the sense of the church as building, and dare I say, as institution. The vast majority of churches in the world—at least Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran—like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, enclose a shrine to the memory of the death of Jesus. It is generally called the altar and it is the place where the sacrifice of Christ is re-enacted Sunday after Sunday. Many of those altars explicitly state the message, “Do this in remembrance of me,” by which I think we have come to mean the dying part and not the resurrecting part. It is no wonder, as when we enter the actual tomb in Jerusalem, that we kneel, we bow, and we crouch, our spirits chanting, as our voices did on Maundy Thursday night:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descending
Comes our homage to demand.
It is no wonder that such an event would require rules and regulations, which is what the word religion means. It is no wonder that something so momentous, so holy, and so weighty would bend our backs. It is no wonder that that something of such consequence would be so accommodating to the status quo lest it be upset or disrupted or diminished.
The funny thing, though, is that the resurrection is the antithesis of the status quo. Whereas the actual site where it occurred, inside the walls of the church, is bound by rules and regulations, the status quo, the actual event destroys the status quo altogether. The status quo is marked by the reign of death. Resurrection has disrupted that. Forever. Resurrection is life.
Now, as a bishop of the Church, I’m all in favor of the importance of what goes on inside the church, but sometimes I wonder if it isn’t all an excuse for people like myself to earn a living. What I know for sure is that the curious case of the Immovable Ladder is unlikely ever to be resolved inside the church, at least until the ladder crumbles to dust and blows away into the streets of Jerusalem.
There is, however, an alternative, which is to resolve it outside the church, by which I mean in the doing of mission. Resurrection, which calls us to stand up as we leave the tomb, is found in the going out of the church door into that place where the status quo of what sort of robe gets worn when and what sort of vessel gets used for what pales in comparison to the new life we are offered in knowing Christ Jesus our Lord as he said we would know him—in the persons of the poor, the sick, the outcast, the prisoner, the blind, the marginalized—in relationships of salvation to eternal life. The resurrection is just too big to be contained inside. By its nature, it must go out. And when we go out, somehow all those big, important fights about what goes where just seem a whole lot less important than do mercy and love.
I’ve always thought that ladder was there so that some workman, once upon a time, could climb up from the ledge to get through the window and back in the church. Now I’m wondering if it might be there so that we can get out.