Sermon given at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Lent 2022
The story of Jacob’s ladder is one which has a fascinating reception history.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 20th March 2022 at 3.00 PM
On Christmas Day 1950, a remarkable theft was attempted. Four students managed to break through the Works Yard here in Westminster Abbey, and found their way through Poets’ Corner into the Shrine of St Edward. There, they seized the Stone of Scone, sometimes known as the Stone of Destiny, from its home under the Coronation Chair—that large reliquary made for the Stone by King Edward I in 1296. The heist was near disastrous. They dropped the Stone, breaking it into three pieces, eventually got it into a car, and proceeded to drive north. Some months later, after an anonymous tip-off, the Stone was discovered at the High Altar of Arbroath Abbey on the east coast of Scotland. It was returned to Westminster, until its subsequent rehousing in Edinburgh alongside the Royal Honours of Scotland in July 1996. The stone was escorted to Edinburgh Castle with a detachment from the Queen’s Bodyguard in Scotland. It will return to Westminster for subsequent coronations.
The Stone has a remarkable history. It came to Scone in the year 846, almost certainly via Egypt, Spain and Ireland. As well as being the coronation seat of Scottish kings, it has an altogether older iconic status. This, tradition tells us, was the stone used by the patriarch Jacob during his nocturnal dream about the ladder. Well before it was a piece of royal regalia, this was a sacred relic. The pillow of Jacob from which he glimpsed a ladder, upon which were angels ascending and descending from and into heaven.
The story of Jacob’s ladder is one which has a fascinating reception history. It is clearly the subject of much reflection in Jesus’s own day. By the second century AD, St Irenaeus was explicitly linking the voice of the Lord, which said “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” to Jesus, the pre-existent word of the Father, through whom all things were made. In John’s account of Jesus’s conversation with Nathanael, it’s clear that Jesus himself replaces Bethel, the holy ground on which Jacob had had his dream, and Nathanael is promised that which Jacob is not—Nathanael will not only see those dynamic angelic messengers moving on the Son of Man, he will see Heaven opened. That is not given to Jacob. John’s account of Jesus’s conversation with Nathanael is a massive intensification of an image and a tradition which is already pushing the boundaries of what might ordinarily be possible even in prayer. Even without a glimpse into the celestial realm itself, Jacob declares that his dream has revealed Bethel as the House of God and Gate of heaven. Nathanael is warned not to allow his expectations to be anything other than dazzlingly life-transforming. Nathanael is impressed that he was noticed by Jesus under the fig tree. He needs to raise his expectations if he really is going to discover who Jesus is, and what is possible in Jesus’s company.
These two pieces of scripture set before us the intense ambiguity and the dynamism at the heart of whatever Christians have to say about place and its meaning. On the one hand, we are a thoroughly rooted faith; the final revelation of God in Christ happened at a particular place at a particular time in history; we celebrate holy places and holy things; the flesh of Christ, Mary’s child, himself the image and icon of the invisible God, is the locus of our salvation and our only hope. To be a Christian is not to escape from our flesh, to ignore our bodies, or to reject those places where we have known a deeper sense of God’s love. We are created amidst a web of interconnected vibrancy and life which shimmers through matter and fires our imagination and our hope. However, all time, all history, all particularity is embraced by those events in Bethlehem, Galilee and Jerusalem which happened sometime around 30–33AD. God is as near and as real when we pray in a darkened room of tears or a bombed-out hospital in Ukraine as he is when we visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, or luxuriate on the top of a beautiful hillside.
The trustworthy metaphor for how we navigate this reality is one of pilgrimage and journey. It is one where setting out and return are somehow folded into one, as part of a faithful travelling of life’s road. The poet Malcolm Guite reflects on this relationship in a sonnet on Jacob’s Ladder and Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus. We are given, he writes,
The promise of an end to all our exile,
For now a child of Israel finds it true,
And sees the One who heals the deep heart’s aching
As Jacob’s dream becomes Nathanael’s waking.
During Lent, we audit the journey, check the map, work out what dust needs to be brushed away from our spiritual lives. What was a dream, is to become our real life. During this so-called springtime of the soul, Jesus says to us repeatedly and insistently, ‘Come and see.’ There is a permanent invitation into company with Jesus which issued to us again and again. It’s notable that his encouragement is to seeing what is going on. The Johannine theme of life simply looking different in Jesus’s orbit is a strong one—think about the Wedding at Cana, the Raising of Lazarus, so many other examples. Life in Jesus’s company takes on a different character because it is living in the world as the world was meant to be. To follow Jesus and to see what he is doing in the Gospels, in our prayer life, in the sacrificial love we know from other people and which we hope to practice ourselves, is a decisive move. Because to come and see what Jesus is doing is a kind of letting-go of our own narratives and preoccupations, it is a release from our need to control the present and the future. That is a genuine pilgrimage—made in the company of others, and with a need for rest and recreation on the journey. The holy place, our goal, is a person, and our way there, is through relationship. Surely, staging posts on the way are deeply important. Each of us will have holy places, liminal ground, on which faith just feels that little more secure, or where our imagination is fired and refreshed. But Nathanael learns that Christ is Bethel, the Gate of Heaven, indeed, Heaven itself, Christ is the site of communication between the world and that-which-we-dare-to-call-God. The pillow will always be swiped away from under our heads unless it is Christ. Then, Jacob’s dream will become our awakening.