HOLY STAIRS

Scala Santa Sacred Stairs I just returned from a week in Italy making preparations for a 2014 music mission trip.  This journey was my first time in that country, and thus first time to visit sights profoundly notable to Christian faith and historic worship.  Evangelicals often question the veracity of many relics, and stories that go with them, reflecting an anti-Roman Catholicism sentiment that has waxed and waned over many decades.

As I gazed upon some of the relics I found little room for wondering, “Are those the actual chains that held Peter, or Paul?” or “Does that cutaway stone actually contain bones of the Apostle?”  Rather, there was a sufficient sense of awe in being in proximity to where biblical events had taken place.  Chains hanging, incased in a box made with glass and wood, provided the imagination with sufficient fodder to not only contemplate the stories and be reminded of their value to the larger salvation story, but also to stir my spirit to worship the Author, and to be grateful for the application of its truth in my own life journey.  Whether we understand it or not, there is something important for us to grasp in the interaction between things of the material world and spirituality.  Gazing upon a stone that could have been under an apostle’s feet will never transport his ancient spirit into mine.  It may, however, cause me to remember that this same Lord who called him to follow in faith has called me as well.

Perhaps most notable for me was a sidestep into a museum containing the Scala Sancta (Scala Santa in Italian), or Holy Stairs.  The steps were supposedly brought to Rome from Jerusalem in the 4th Century, as ordered by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.  The marble steps were covered in wood.  The steps at one time reportedly led to the palace of Pontius Pilate, and thus were climbed by Jesus at the occasion of His trial before Pilate.  In their current setting one is only allowed to climb the stairs on their knees.  During the 28-step climb a prayer is to be prayed on each successive step.  Popes have declared that such activity results in plenary indulgences.  At the top the Sancta Santorum (Holy of Holies) is a private chapel used by popes for many decades.  On the day we were ushered into the vestibule of the building by our host missionary there were probably fifteen to twenty persons making their way up the steps, whispering prayers as they slowly made their way one step at a time.  While I understood the missionary’s intent to give us a shocking view of a works salvation supposedly in progress before our eyes, I personally found, instead, an inquisitive reflection on the faith expressions of those who were self-diminished and making their way to the top of the stairwell.  Uncomfortable with the notion of rudely gawking at the climbers, I noted a statue to the right of the steps that replicated the betrayal kiss of Judas on the cheek of Jesus.  Even as I looked on the statue I heard the prayer whispers of those who were climbing and praying.  The sights and sounds of that experience left me with more than a little wonderment regarding the tensions of spirit and truth worship, symbolism, and blatant superstition.

Follow-up reading has revealed that Martin Luther himself was reported to have climbed these steps sometime around 1511, but stopped after he had climbed halfway.  According to one account he paused, stood and questioned, “Who knows whether it is so?” and walked back down the stairs.  Further legend has it that this experience played a part in Luther sensing that the Holy Spirit was prompting him in this manner that salvation is by faith alone, and not works.  Again, whether this story is legend or fact takes little away from the inherent tension.  I am prone to contemplate the question of when an act is faith expression and when it is works.  As with many outward signs or acts that could well be described as worship, the truth remains that “man looks on the outward appearance and God looks upon the heart.”  Our grasp to be able to tell from outward appearances mostly leaves us wanting, since we cannot see.  What we can surmise over time is whether or not one is becoming more like Jesus, the One we say we worship.  Seems only reasonable that spending time with Him, bowing at the feet of His teaching and instruction, communing with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would all serve to change us to be more like Him.

At the risk of being identified as one of the Catholic faithful (as if anyone in Italy knows Paul Clark), I found myself more than once kneeling in a church building marked as containing some piece of biblical history.  Not infrequent were moments of simply bowing head and heart at the feet of a statue that either reflected a biblical character, or simply represented artistic value.  I had previously seen pictures of Michelangelo’s Moses, but standing in front of the work itself brought a different kind of reflection.   I was astounded by the art, but even more by the One who created and gifted the artist and inspired the sculpting itself.  My spiritual sensibilities were certainly aroused in these settings.

As Christian worshipers seeking to be in unity with fellow believers, while adhering to biblical truth and understanding, we can only postulate what is even in our own heart, much less presume to know what is in the heart of others.  We trust God’s Word, which instructs us that the human heart is wicked, and “deceitful above all things.” (Jeremiah 17:9)  Placing trust and faith in Christ alone brings both amazing freedom, and intense strain.  Everything in our self-made culture pleads for us to try harder, climb higher, do more, and make our own way.  We evangelicals may not be rubbing statues or kissing rings, but we undoubtedly engage in programmatic busy-ness to a fault, far too often leaving our God-given opportunities for relationship and faith sharing aside.  Worship in spirit and truth surely demands that we take pause to hear, touch, smell, taste, and see that He is good. While many things may point us toward Him, and remind us of Him, He reminds us that He alone is the way, the truth, the life.

And all we, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord,                who is the Spirit.  (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Explore posts in the same categories: Leading Worship, Private Worship, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship

4 Comments on “HOLY STAIRS”

  1. Lisa Huddleston Says:

    Thank you, Paul, for looking at the faith that drives the works–rather than at the works alone. You have a kind heart that makes me smile in thanksgiving.

  2. Wayne Causey Says:

    a very good reflection. thanks for the very personal perspective, Paulo.


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