The Holy Stairs and a Few Other Post-Easter Observations

Article for St Catharines Standard newspaper by Peter Youngren.

The Easter season has reminded us again that religion deals with ridding the soul of sin, guilt, remorse and shame. There are hundreds, if not thousands of recommended ways to get the job done. In the early fourth century, empress Helena, later St. Helena, believed she had discovered the staircase that led to the guardroom in Jerusalem where Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate. Helena was the mother of emperor Constantine the 1st, who adopted Christianity as the religion of Rome, though, to this day, no one knows for sure whether his conversion was a political convenience or a heart-felt conviction. Helena saw to it that the Sancta Scala, the Holy Stairs, were transported to Rome.

Those Holy Stairs were given their present location in Rome by Pope Sixtus the 5th in 1589. To this day millions of worshipers believe that the twenty-eight white marble steps are sacred, as Jesus’ blood would have fallen on them as he walked to his trial. By climbing the stairs on their knees in an attitude of repentance, devotees believe they can gain forgiveness of sins, even as they glean inspiration from decorations and frescoes painted by eminent renaissance artists along the walls and ceiling that enclose the sacred steps. Reportedly, after Martin Luther, the 16th century German reformer, had climbed the stairs, he complained of having no sense of relief from the burden of sins that plagued his conscience.  I’ve found no records as to the testimony of modern day climbers and the measure of relief they may or may not feel.

A sense of guilt towards God seems universal. Pilgrimages, climbing holy stairs, confessions, bowing, meditation and prayer recitals all hold the promise of relief. Somehow this debt has to be paid and the sense of indebtedness to a deity is by no means limited to Christianity. Annually millions of Hindu devotees immerse themselves into the river Ganges, hoping that its holy waters will cleanse their sin. Protestants and evangelicals have their own ways of dealing with sin; repeat prayers, join a church, occasional fasting or other spiritual disciplines. Regardless of religion, the hope is that our sacred actions will convince a holy God to forgive our sins. As a child I regularly traveled through southern Europe on holidays with my parents. My young impressionable mind was affected by a shrine located on a hill, and pilgrimers climbing the stone steps on their bare knees in quest of atonement.

The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, stands in stark contrast to religious activities. Jesus has “once for all” dealt with sin. He took away the world’s sins—remitted them. The Amplified Bible puts it this way, “It was God, personally present, in Christ, reconciling and restoring the world to favor with Himself, not counting up and holding against people their trespasses, but canceling them, and committing to us the message of reconciliation, of the restoration to favor”, (2 Cor. 5:19).

The Easter season is just behind us, and again the symbols of sin and death dominated; the reenactment of the Via Dolorosa, crucifixes and depictions of a suffering Savior appeal to human empathy and need. Why is it that the symbols of death vastly outnumbered those of resurrection and life? The gospel doesn’t end with a suffering Savior on the cross, but with the one who absorbed human sin and guilt, rising to endless life. Maybe the best symbol for the gospel is not a crucifix, but an empty tomb, or an empty cross. Easter, with its Holy Week, fasting and special acts of devotion is over, but the one who dealt with sin once for all is alive. What neither the Sancta Scala nor any other acts of penance can do, Jesus already did; He put away sins and conquered death. Now that will take you to next Easter and beyond.

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