1 Sam. 3: 1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Cor. 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
This is surely one of Jesus’ more obscure sayings. “Very truly I tell you,” he says to Nathanael, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” The reference is to Jacob’s dream in Genesis when he sees angels on a ladder ascending to and descending from heaven. But what can it possibly mean? We need to do a little detective work.
So, why not start in Paris? I’m not a regular in Paris, but have managed to get there three or four times. On one visit way back when I happened to go into a book store—an old-fashioned book store (remember book stores?). Very high ceilings with shelves all the way to the top, ladders to get up there. The overflow in stacks on tables, even on the wood plank floor. The fragrance of old leather bindings in the air. It happened to be a Left Bank version of what we would call a “New Age” bookstore: all the world religions, and then some. Theosophy, Anthroposophy, astrology and numerology and the occult, etc. etc.–all the more exotic for being in French. There in the Christian section of the store a little book jumped out at me (have you ever had books jump out at you?) “Le Symbolisme du Temple Chrétien”. The symbolism of the Christian temple. By someone named Jean Hani. I bought and read it.
It was all about symbolism in the building of churches, especially during what the author called the “great age” of building, i.e., the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Whole chapters were devoted to the symbolism of cruciform floor plans and orientation, bells, doors, labyrinths, foundation stones, keystones. And, of course, the altar—the altar being central in all churches and especially resonant symbolically. The altar and with it the baldacchino.
According to this little book, the traditional Christian altar is a synthesis of all the altars in the Jerusalem temple: the altar of sacrifice, the altar of incense, the table of the Showbread, and the rock within the Holy of Holies. There is also resonance with the altar of the Lamb in the heavenly Jerusalem. And also of significance is the baldacchino or ciborium: four columns supporting a canopy over the altar. Geometrically, a cube covered by a dome (you can see the geometry right here behind me; below the curtain rod the cube, above the curtain rod the dome). The rectangular representing earth, the circular representing heaven. The baldacchino says in effect, this is the place where earth and heaven come together.
But it is also in Jesus Christ that earth and heaven come together. The altar, then, becomes a symbol or a kind of sacrament of Christ himself (which is why we reverence the altar with bows and incense and even kisses). Much is made in this little book about the need for the altar to be of stone. Christ is, after all, the rock, the cornerstone, the foundation, the rock that followed the Israelites around in the wilderness that Paul mentions cryptically in 1 Cor. 4. And much is made of this quotation from John and the story of Jacob’s dream. “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
In Genesis Jacob takes a stone for a pillow, falls asleep, and then dreams of angels going up to heaven and coming down to earth on a ladder. Waking up he exclaims: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” [Gen. 28:17] He then pours oil on the stone in ritual anointing, and sets it up as a kind of altar.
This is all in the language of dreams and poetry, which is highly symbolic, with one thing standing for another. Jesus, in this passage from John, seems to be identifying himself with Jacob’s pillow, the stone anointed for an altar. The stone at the base of the ladder upon which angels ascend and descend. “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” So the altar takes on another layer of meaning: the altar is the rock of Jacob’s pillow, the place where a ladder reaches to heaven, and the altar is Christ himself. Jacob’s anointed stone pillow, we might say, is a foreshadowing, a “type” of Christ, Christ the anointed one.
Much of the symbolism in Christian houses of worship was dispensed with in the Protestant Reformation—some buildings being deliberately plain and devoid of images and symbols. But the idea of the altar isn’t lost: it just becomes part of the inner landscape. So we have hymns saying things like: “Grant us thy truth to set us free, and kindling hearts that burn for thee, till all thy living altars claim one holy light, one heavenly flame.” [Hymnal 1982 #419] And: “O thou who camest from above the fire celestial to impart, kindle a flame of sacred love upon the altar of my heart.” [Hymnal 1982 #704]
John’s gospel is very much concerned with the inner landscape; John’s gospel speaks of Christ’s indwelling presence: we are in him, he abides in us. That “place” where he is within us is the place where the heavenly is brought “down” to us and the earthly is taken “up” to God—by angels, messengers ascending and descending, in the poetic language of dreams.
John’s gospel speaks of many things, but it does not speak directly of the Eucharist. In John’s gospel we read that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood. But, curiously, the story of the last supper is missing in John. But the connection of the Son of Man with Jacob’s pillow, Jacob’s altar, could very well be a Eucharistic image, a veiled allusion to the Lord’s Supper—at least to the movements of our hearts. What happens in the Eucharist is very much an ascending and descending sort of thing. “Lift up your hearts,” the priest says. We respond: “We lift them to the Lord.” These human hearts of ours, these human lives of ours are offered up to God in the Eucharist—symbolically, sacramentally represented in the gifts of bread and wine.
The bread and wine taken to the altar represent our self-offering, which is, in poetic terms, taken up to heaven by angels ascending Jacob’s ladder. The new life, resurrection life, transformed life in Christ, is brought down to earth by angels descending the ladder (again, in the language of dreams and poetry). The life we offer to God is transformed and given back to us—represented sacramentally in the consecrated bread and wine. This commerce takes place outwardly and visibly on the altar—and also on the very rock of Christ present in our hearts, on Jacob’s pillow in our hearts, as it were.
He is the Eternal Word, the way, the truth and the life; he is the light, the living vine, the true bread, the living water, the resurrection, the good shepherd, the door, the living altar upon whom angels ascend and descend, the anointed stone, the pillow of Jacob, where earth and heaven embrace. Our forebears spoke this language of poetry and dreams uninhibitedly—even architecturally. A church building was to be not only place where people gathered, but a poetic embodiment of Christ himself and the human soul—the altar stands at the center of this poetic world, both in the church and in the heart.
Christ is all in all. The Lord tells Jacob that he will be with him always. He is here symbolically in a stone table. He is here sacramentally in bread and wine. He is here spiritually in hearts lifted up and returned to us renewed, transformed, consecrated.
Angels ascend to heaven from this place with the glad tidings.
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