Sermon given at Matins on St Michael and All Angels 2013
29 September 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
The Immovable Ladder
This is one of those strange stories which when you first hear it, you assume must be fabricated, made up on the whim of someone’s inventive mind.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is acknowledged to be one of, if not, the most holy sites in all Christendom. The site was at one time covered by a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, part of the Emperor Hadrian’s reconstruction of Jerusalem following the Jewish revolts in the 130s AD and the astonishing tale of the sepulchre’s discovery by Helena, mother of Constantine, in the 320s is the stuff of legend.
For Christians this extraordinary church is venerated as the place of Jesus’s crucifixion, as well as his burial, hence the name ‘sepulchre’, his tomb. For that reason, too, it is also considered the place of resurrection, so in early times the church was known as the ‘Church of the Resurrection’.
However, for reasons which I will come on to later, in recent years the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has also become famed for ‘The Immovable Ladder’.
Because if you stand in the courtyard outside, just to the south, and look up at the first floor balcony, there is a ladder. A very ordinary-looking, wooden ladder. It has stood there, in the same position, for at least 150 years – and most likely a century before then.
The ladder stands on a window ledge and is thought to have been there so that the superior of the Armenian monastery housed in the church could sit out in the sun and have coffee with his friends.
So why is this significant?
In a series of sermons on Sunday mornings during September, all available on the Abbey’s website, I have been speaking about the Christian communities of the Middle East. Not, as it were, the newly-arrived Anglicans, or the myriad mission agencies that provide educational and medical relief.
Rather I have wanted to draw our attention to the indigenous, authentic, ancient Christian communities who have been part of the landscape of the region from the birth of Christianity itself. These Christian traditions – in our blinkered horizons known to us in the exotic-sounding Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Oriental Orthodox Churches – never left the region. They were there at the start of Christianity, and have never gone away.
However, their presence in the imagination of Western European Christianity has diminished to such an extent that in popular culture we find it hard to believe that 10% of those living in Egypt or Syria or Lebanon are indeed Christians.
So what’s this go to do with ‘The Immovable Ladder’?
Well, over the past month I have spoken positively about the contribution of these ancient traditions, both individually and collectively, to the religious ecology of the Middle East. They are hugely important to our corporate memory of Christian inheritance.
But the ‘Immovable Ladder’ points up a different aspect to these various traditions, and highlights a problem which in turn present us with a challenge.
So, first of all, the problem.
The problem is that Christianity’s holiest site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is under the joint custodianship of a number of these ancient Christian communities. Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholics take the lion’s share, with Copts, Ethiopians and Syriac bringing up the rear.
Centuries of cohabitation have not, however, endued these communities with an abundance of brotherly love. Time and again, disputes over territory have flared up. A chair moved here, or a door left open there have led to slanging matches and brawls.
Which is why the ladder is ‘Immovable’. Under an agreement brokered by the Ottomans, the status quo was to be maintained in all common areas. Nothing can even be rearranged without the consent of all. So, in the case of the ladder, it remains ‘Immovable’. A slightly comical, forlorn sight but not hurting anyone.
However, other parts of the Church are in dire need of repair, much of which is delayed ad infinitum or at least until common consent can be found.
So the problem is simple: the holiest site in Christendom is witness, not to the unity for which Jesus prayed in St John, chapter 17, but rather to the pettiness of sibling rivalry.
In many ways, of course, this is no different to the shades of difference which have afflicted ecumenical relations in the West. But the precarious position of Christianity in the Middle East does now lend a greater poignancy to this disunity, a visible sign of the broken body of Christ.
And where is the solution to be found?
Well, if you think that the tale of the ‘Immovable Ladder’ is strange, you will find the story of the Guardian even stranger.
The year is AD 638. The Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, has been dead six years. Omar the Just, the second caliph or successor to the Prophet, prepares to accept the surrender of Byzantine-held Jerusalem, which has been under siege for two years.
Sari Nusseibeh, in his autobiography ‘Once Upon a Country’ picks up the story:
‘Omar requested that Sephronius, the Byzantine bishop of Jerusalem, meet him outside the gates … Sephronius ushered Omar to the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest church in Christendom and a repository of divine history…
As the story goes, when the time came for the Muslim prayer, Omar refused to pray in the church, for fear of setting a precedent. If he prayed there, he feared later Muslim leaders might be tempted to turn the glorious church in to a Mosque. Instead, the caliph chose a spot outside the church to perform his ritual.
Omar the Just then charged one of his companions, the Nusseibehs, to be guardian of the shrine. To this day, a member of this ancient Muslim family arrives at dawn to unlock the church: ‘Peace’ he says to the priest, ‘Peace’ he replies.
This is an extraordinary portrait of modern living in Jerusalem. Christians of ancient origin unable to regulate their own affairs; the guardianship of their holiest site in the hands of an almost equally ancient Muslim family.
So as I conclude this series on Christians in the Middle East, I want to end with a challenge both to them and to us. The challenge is that while we should undoubtedly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Christians in the region, especially in this period which has seen so much violence against Christians. However, we should also encourage them – and ourselves – to journey further and deeper along the path of Christian unity, the unity which Jesus prayed for in St John, chapter 17, as a witness to the world.
And perhaps to acknowledge the sting in the tail: namely, that those entrusted with guardianship of our most holy site are themselves of another faith. Is that because we can’t be trusted with it?