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If you ever have the opportunity to visit Jerusalem, and you find yourself at the church of the Holy Sepulcher—one of the possible sites for Jesus’ tomb—and if you look up and to your right before entering, you’ll see an old wooden ladder on a ledge resting against a window. Its story requires that you know something about the church itself.
For centuries six different Christian groups have each claimed ownership of the church. This dispute led the Ottoman Sultan, in 1757, to issue an edict known as the “Status Quo,” which defined which parts of the church belonged to which groups.
So, for example, one group had possession of the floors while another had possession of the domed roof (which led the Israeli government to put up trusses when the integrity of the domed roof began to fail because the owners of the floor would not permit the owners of the roof to use their floor to erect scaffolding to repair the roof.)
Some historians say that this little ladder set the precedent for all this. In the early 1800’s, Armenian monks, who held the rights to the outer windows, set out to repair them. But this caused a problem one historian described this way: “At some point the Armenians put out the ladder for the purpose of doing work on the windows, [and] the Greeks protested that the ladder was resting on their portion (the outer ledge). The Armenians refused to remove the ladder – hence the frozen reality.”
Over the years, the heated dispute has cooled, but the ladder remains in place—visible in photos dating back as far as the 1800’s! Here’s one from 1857:
The ladder stands as a testimony to the “Status Quo”—no one dares remove it. (Monks make replacement ladders when the existing ones rot.)
It’s ironic, considering what that church memorializes.
We can go so far from the hope of Jesus as our Immanuel—“God with us”—when our practice goes from heartfelt faith and joy in the risen Christ to keeping the Status Quo. Monks struggle to cling to where He once was, quibbling over a ladder, yet we seem to lose the glorious message of where He now is because the tomb is empty.
We do some strange things in the name of religion.
We all have ladders—practices we impose on ourselves or that have been imposed on us. (We don’t just throw away, but burn our “secular” music. In hard times, we search for the sin God is disciplining us for until we name a dozen. With disappointment, we analyze all the reasons we didn’t deserve God’s blessing (we used a credit card last month; we skipped our quite times; we forgot to send a relative a birthday gift, and then got angry because they seemed to expect one).
Somewhere between the emptying of Jesus’ tomb and the filling of modern churches we have propped a lot of ladders against a lot of windows—ladders which have stood for generations. But over time, as many of us can verify, we forget why they’re there, even though we labor to maintain them.
And our “religion” becomes devoid of any true joy in Christ, and instead becomes the means by which we keep an “angry God” at bay and other Christians from suspecting we need a Savior.
It is an age-old problem—forgetting what Jesus had come to do and why He had come to do it. The good news is Jesus did not forget. Jesus knew what He had come to do. He knew why He had come to do it. And He knew how we would be inclined to receive it.
I have to imagine that there were times in the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher when the focus of the discussions centered on that ladder. Monks arguing their points… forgetting that the more important issue was why, if the tomb was empty, could they not be united in their joy?
Outside the church is a monument to our unwillingness to delight in that joy which sometimes seems to be lost.
But inside the church is a monument to the empty tomb—the promise that the church has been washed whiter than snow. And as long as this is the case, that joy will never be truly lost, even though it may be lost on us.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).