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Stairway to Heaven mystery

July 6, 2015

Genesis 28: 10-22                                                      Monday 6th July

Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis is what is called a theophany – an appearance of God, where God is made present to human senses. Moses seeing the ‘Burning Bush’ was a theophany. Today we hear about Jacob having a theophany.

And this morning we also hear the familiar story of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. It’s an unfortunate translation, because it’s not the kind of ladder you see on top of a fire engine! No, the word used in the original Hebrew version means ‘to lift up, cast up, exalt’, but is used by the Old Testament prophets to give a sense of God’s ‘spiritual highway’. It might make things easier to understand if we refer to Jacob’s ‘ladder’ as ‘Jacob’s Highway to Heaven’.

So where can this ‘Highway to Heaven be found? The reading identifies that place, and it’s a very special place. The words we heard to describe this place this morning were ‘a certain place’: But the original Hebrew text simply says ‘the place’. Where is ‘the place’? Well, a little earlier in Genesis[1]the place’ refers to Mount Moriah.

And Mount Moriah is where Abraham (Jacob’s grandfather) had attempted to offer Isaac (Jacob’s father), as a human sacrifice. So today we are hearing how Jacob has returned to the very place where Abraham had been with his own father, and where Abraham had also experienced a theophany. So this is indeed a very special place. It is a place where God makes Himself known to human beings. Mount Moriah is also the place where The Temple, the place where God resided, would be built in the future by Solomon.

So the vision of Jacob’s ‘Ladder’ (or ‘Highway to Heaven’) was seen by Jacob on the site of The Temple, in what was to become the centre of Jerusalem.

And did you notice how we were given the detail that Jacob took up a stone that he seemed to use as a pillow. The original Hebrew word used for ‘stone’ in the text was ‘ehben’, and that word refers to a stone that has been shaped ready for use in making a building. It’s the same we word that is used for the ten commandments on tablets of stone (ehben), and Jesus used the same word when He told Peter “You are Peter and on this rock (ehben) I shall build my church.’ And the word ‘ehben’ in the Old Testament is always linked with references to the Messiah.[2] This place, the site of Jacob’s theophany, is indeed a very holy place.

The reading describes the scene: “a ladder was there, standing on the ground with its top reaching to heaven; and there were angels of God going up it and coming down.” Now when you were children you may have been taught that during the Mass, at the moment of the consecration, there are angels present on the sanctuary, rejoicing.

It’s true! When we all say the Sanctus during the Eucharist, (the Holy, Holy) we are joining with the countless hosts of heaven, the angels and saints, what we call the Communion of Saints, in praising God together. The Mass unites earth and heaven.

And I love the First Eucharistic Prayer, the oldest Eucharistic Prayer, used by the very earliest Christians, when the priest says these words:

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God, command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy body and blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.”

When I hear these words they send a shiver down my spine. I am experiencing a theophany. God is made manifest in front of my eyes. My rather limited human senses are able to see the Body and Blood of our Lord present on the altar (that is why the priest uses a large host and holds it up – so that everyone can experience a theophany). And at that moment I image the broad stairway, sweeping up to heaven, with angels delighting in going up and down, communicating between us and our God. How fantastic is that!

Jacob’s theophany in a holy place, Jacob’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ are both there, in the Book of Genesis, a sign of what is to come – a Holy Temple, a Holy sacrifice, for a holy people – it is describing the Mass!

We are the beneficiaries of all that is prefigured and prophesied in the Old Testament, made manifest in Jesus Christ and His Church in the New Testament.

We are indeed a privileged people.

[1] Genesis 22: 4

[2] Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 8:14; Isaiah 28:16; Genesis 49:24; Deuteronomy 4:13; Exodus 24:12; Exodus 34:1-4

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