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Stairway

Sunday 30 August Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

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Stairway

Posted By : Nicholas Papadopulos Wednesday 7th October 2020
Sunday 30 August Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury 
 
Genesis 28: 10-17
John 1: 43- end
 
 
“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.  For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it.  We know only that God dwells there among mortals…  For we cannot forget that beauty”.
 
So wrote the emissaries of Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev, to their lord.  The year is 988; the prince has despatched them to discover which of the world faiths he should adopt.  They come to the great church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, Hagia Sophia.  After worshipping in Hagia Sophia the emissaries are left in no doubt.
 
“God dwells there among mortals”.  Their conviction is a testament to the skill of the architects and builders, for that is precisely the theological worldview that they set out to embody.  An unimaginably huge central dome sits atop the four walls of a square which, with its right-angles, represents the earthly realm, with all its beginnings and endings.  The dome, with its perfect circle, represents the heavenly realm, unending, unbroken, eternal.  In the vast uncluttered space beneath there are no pillars or pointed lancets to draw the eye aloft, and no spire pointing heavenwards.  There is no need.  For in the incarnation of the Son of God, in the person of Jesus, heaven has come to earth.  And in the celebration of the Liturgy, Jesus is present among his people.  That’s what the emissaries discern.  Here, God dwells among mortals.
 
Danny Lane, the artist who created Stairway, was born in 1955, in a New York where Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were neighbours, and where he immersed himself in the counterculture of the Sixties, demonstrating against the war in Vietnam, and arriving in England in the middle of the cultural upheaval of the Seventies.
 
He would have been a teenager when the English band Led Zeppelin released their fourth album.  Was the closing track of its first side on his mind when he made the sculpture that now sits outside the North Porch, or when he assented to its being exhibited here?  That track is Stairway to Heaven, which features in just about all rock geeks’ anthologies of history’s best-ever-songs.  It’s certainly a connection that many viewers of the sculpture have made.
 
And, although you don’t know him yet, it’s an appropriate one for Canon Nigel’s licensing.  Canon Nigel is not only a fellow-member with Danny Lane of the class of 1955: he shares, I suspect, Lane’s healthy respect for rebels and risk-takers.  And I haven’t asked him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a Led Zeppelin section in his music collection.  Canon Nigel has an enviable knowledge of classic rock music which leaves my specialist subject on the fantasy clergy pub quiz team in serious jeopardy.
 
“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold” sings Robert Plant to Jimmy Page’s plaintive guitar “and she’s buying a stairway to heaven”.  Led Zeppelin take aim at the belief that there’s nothing that money can’t buy, which is a rather exposed stance for a band who have sold nearly two million copies of that one album in the UK alone.  But, more interestingly, the song also takes aim at the theological worldview that this building and two millennia of Western thought represent: the worldview that places heaven up there, at the end of a ladder, at the apex of a Gothic arch, or at the top of a spire, a place remote from us, a place that be reached only through the rigour of a climb.
 
It’s a theological worldview which appears to be represented in this morning’s two readings.  Jacob dreams of a ladder set up on earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; Jesus speaks of Heaven being open and of the angels of God ascending and descending.
 
So from where does Hagia Sophia’s contrary insistence come, the insistence that there is no ascent and no descent, for God dwells among mortals?  It comes, of course, from the insistence of Jesus that he stands where Jacob’s ladder once stood.  It is upon him that the angels ascend and descend; upon him, born in Bethlehem; upon him, tramping the hills of Galilee; upon him, suffering and dying outside the walls of Jerusalem.  In him the breach between earth and Heaven has been reconciled.  There is no need of a ladder for he is the ladder.  He has promised to be present with his people, and when he is present with his people then all of Heaven is present with him.  God dwells among mortals.
 
Hagia Sophia has been in the news recently, although under-reported in the UK.  Hagia Sophia was the principal shrine of Christendom for more than a thousand years; it was then a mosque for 500 years; and from 1935 it functioned as a museum in the secular Republic of Turkey.  Now, following the decree of President Erdogan, it has reverted to use as a mosque.  The change in its status is felt keenly by Eastern Orthodox Christians.  It’s not just that the move further reinforces their sense of isolation in the Muslim-majority countries where Christianity was first proclaimed.  It’s that for them Hagia Sophia is the archetype of all churches, the place which originally and brilliantly encapsulates the shining truth that is the heart of the faith, the truth that God dwells among mortals and that we need no stairway to reach him; the truth that God’s Spirit has been poured out upon the Earth and that God’s  Spirit makes her dwelling place in the heart of each of us.
 
One of the longest discussions the Chapter has conducted since my arrival concerned whether we could safely exhibit Stairway to the satisfaction of our insurers.  Because, of course, Danny Lane’s elegant, eloquent, beautiful piece leads nowhere.  Please don’t try to climb its narrow and narrowing glass steps.  For if you did you would arrive at a sheer precipice. You can play games, photographing it from clever angles and making it look as though it leads to the pinnacle of the spire.  But it doesn’t.
 
“Stairways…”, I imagine Danny Lane saying, with the impulse to deconstruct that characterizes the era in which he grew up, “Stairways have a habit of coming to an abrupt end, and when they do there is a long way to fall.  Look around you instead.  Start with the world in which you have been placed”.  Jimmy Page and Robert Plant sing it: here, all things will turn to gold – all things, not just the things that glitter.  Here, the forests will echo with laughter. 
For here God is present, is what we might add.  Dwelling among mortals.  Here God’s work is done, in us, and through us.  Here.  We dare not forget that beauty.