Who controls access to God?
I’m not crazy about ladders – they remind me of gutters full of wet leaves, and of stupid things I did painting houses when I was growing up. Jacob’s famous vision of a ladder is just that: a vision, a symbolic image to aid our understanding. It stretches from earth to heaven, with the angels traveling up and down it (I wonder how they avoided tripping on their long angel-gowns….). It seems to point to a channel of access between the human and the divine, between ourselves and God. Jacob and his posterity receive a grand blessing from God, based on this relationship.
This symbolic vision points to the question of human access to God: how do we connect with God? Is it an open line of communication, or must we use certain channels, go through certain intermediaries? The Church historically has a mixed message on this. The early Church inherited the Jewish understanding of sacrifice as the way to reach God, and in fact influence God to pardon sins, grant blessings, and generally stay happy with us. The Jerusalem Temple had a monopoly on the sacrificial system, and so in Jesus’ day the Temple leaders had huge power to distribute God’s grace.
The early Church sought to understand and interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and soon it was interpreted as sacrifice also, “to take away the sin of the world.” The Eucharist or Mass which re-presents that offering of Christ’s Body and Blood, became a means of grace providing forgiveness and renewal. The priesthood controlled this sacrament, as well as the sacrament of Confession for forgiveness. So, once again, religious leaders tried to monopolize access to God’s grace.
But is sacrifice our only channel to God? No. We also understand prayer as a means of connection. But can we pray directly to God, or do we need an intermediary? Again, the Church’s history is mixed. Jesus the God-Man became a logical connection between human and divine. Thus we often pray, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” But in the Roman Catholic tradition, the veneration of St. Mary cast her in the role of intercessor for us, with her son Jesus. (Worse, the Church offered to sell “indulgences” to reduce people’s time in purgatory after death!) This was hotly contested during the Protestant Reformation, which insisted that no “middleman” was needed to receive God’s grace. Our Anglican Eucharistic prayer made this clear with its language that Jesus is “our only mediator and advocate.”
Today the Church faces a challenge: how to help people find access, connection, and relationship with God, without trying to control it through the priesthood, the sacraments, or other church-controlled means. God is bigger than any of us, and surely God’s grace and love is freely offered in all kinds of ways. JBM