We have heard their stories often in the previous decade. The fire fighters of New York City who streamed into the two towers of the World Trade Center to rescue the hundreds of people who were trapped in them. The names are available on nondescript web pages: Joseph Agnello, Sean Hanley, Robert Parro, William Wren. With many other rescue workers, they placed themselves in imminent danger–impossible to estimate on the morning of September 11–in order to fulfill their duties.
It is the fire fighters who have recently gripped me. I have only the images and recollections that anyone else does–the Dateline specials, the hardcover books, the magazine stories. I have never been trapped in a burning building, so I can’t adequately piece together what it was like for the firemen to ascend towers that only minutes later would fall. The image I do have is one clouded by soot and dust and fire. On one side stream office workers desperate to cheat death. On the other side go the firefighters. They do not slow down. They don’t complain. They keep climbing, climbing, climbing. Up and in. Higher toward the top, deeper into the nightmare.
There is a passage in Genesis that speaks to another passage. It’s one of the only Bible texts that I can think of that includes a ladder. So reads Genesis 28:10-14:
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
This passage, like many rough-and-ready Old Testament passages, does not offer us context for this vision. The author doesn’t give us a disquisition on dreams in the Ancient Near East and how this one relates. Jacob receives this picture ex nihilo. Like other patriarchal figures, he is expected to handle this mind-stretching reality, to update his plans and hopes accordingly. The Lord has extended his covenantal promise through Jacob, and the ladder to heaven will be borne by his descendants as it was his forebears.
Jesus applies this text to himself in John 1:51, offering his nascent pack of followers the insight that they would “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Nathanael, who had just confessed, in words better than he knew, that Jesus was the Son of God, could not have immediately understood the significance of Christ’s stunning declaration. The one who was greater than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was here. He would not simply bear the ladder. He was the ladder.
One aspect of the passion narratives of the gospels that strikes me are the way in which they trudge toward the cross. The buildup can be excruciating, if you know what’s coming. There are moments in the telling that make you want to cry out, “Please, please, hurry this up! Why must this injustice be prolonged?” Our horror makes us desperate for the conclusion.
But Jesus did not stop trudging. He kept going. Bearing splintered wood on a back roaring with pain, he kept walking. He did not stop. He went up to Golgotha. Head down, eyes narrowed, pain clouding his view, embracing the sureness of his fate, feeling the coldness of isolation, smelling the stench of crucifixion. As he went, he reflexively turned to prayer—he did not need prompting like his brothers and sisters—but he found nothing there, the sky had become a ceiling. His creation had become a tomb, and it pressed in on him, and he felt the coffin walls at his sides, and he screamed! But he was not heard.
Still he went further. Higher till he hung in the air, forsaken. Higher than any man had ever gone before, higher than even the bravest soldier or firefighter or truth-teller would go. He went in to the darkness. Deeper he pressed into death, descending into the abyss. Deeper than his brothers could go, deeper into the belly of condemnation.
All the way. He went all the way. Up and in, climbing, climbing, climbing, until the earth was no more, and the flame of wrath extinguished. And the cosmos was silent.