The ladder of divine ascent

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.” 
—Genesis 28:12

One of the landmark visions of the Old Testament can be found in the book of Genesis, commonly referred to as “Jacob’s Ladder.” A wandering patriarch is presented with a divine vision of a ladder reaching up to heaven, vindicating that the land on which he is standing will be successfully inherited by his progeny. In response, Jacob proclaims that the place in which he stands is the “House of God” and the “Gate of Heaven” (Genesis 28:17). In celebration, Jacob erects a pillar in the place, anoints it with oil, and calls the location Bethel, which means “House of God” in Hebrew. The place where heaven meets earth is marked in this monumental event. We see later in the coming of Christ how a more profound meaning is realized concerning the Vision of the Ladder:

And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
 —John 1:51

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus, we see Christ associate Himself with the Ladder of Jacob’s vision. Both the Ladder and the Son of Man are described as opening heaven, having the angels ascend and descend upon them. It is in this statement we realize that the Person of Jesus Christ is where heaven meets earth. In His Incarnation, God became man in order that man might reach his ultimate goal: union with God. In Christ, we observe the union of the two natures of humanity and divinity; He is the God-man. God created man for relationship, and ultimately entered into this world to sacrifice Himself and overcome all impediments to our fractured relationship with Him perpetuated by the Fall. It is for this reason Christ refers to Himself as “the Door” (John 10:9) and “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). It is thereby fitting to proclaim Jesus as the Ladder to our Father in heaven, the same “Gate of Heaven” Jacob witnessed in his dream.

We can see the Holy Cross as a type of this Ladder; Christ bridges the gap between heaven and earth using only two planks of wood. In another sense, we can see the vertical and horizontal beams of the Cross establishing unity between man on earth and God in heaven (vertical) and unity among men in the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church (horizontal). Having introduced this notion of the Body of Christ, many typologies open up. We’ve established Christ is the Ladder, thereby making His Body the Ladder. After all, it was His Body nailed to an agonizing cross and slain on Calvary for the redemption of the world. Moreover, we know from Sacred Scripture, the Church is often referred to as the Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7). The Church and Christ are united in a spiritual marriage, proving that Christ and His Body are inseparable—the two become one flesh. In viewing the Bride of Christ as the Ladder, we can understand that the Church provides an avenue to God through Her ministry. 

Having established the Church as a type of the Ladder, let us return back to Genesis to draw on some connections. Recall that Jacob names the place where he received the vision “House of God” (Bethel) and erects a pillar in its place. With this in mind, let us look at the following verse in Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

I am writing these things to you so that… you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 
—1 Timothy 3:14-15

The Church is referred to as a pillar and the household of God! In this sense, the pillar Jacob erects to celebrate the House of God is also a symbol of the Church. Jacob subsequently anoints the pillar with oil, which serves as a prefigurement of Pentecost, where the Church was born and anointed by the Holy Spirit for the proclamation of the gospel. The symbolism of oil as the Holy Spirit is scattered throughout the pages of Scripture:

Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward.
—1 Samuel 16:13

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. 
—Acts 10:38

So far, we have established that Christ, the Cross, and the Church are all types of the Ladder of Jacob, and yet all are closely intertwined. The Body of Christ hung on the Cross for the salvation of souls. This is the reality of the Ladder. In order to reach heaven, we must cling to Christ, the Cross, and the Church. It is for this reason we are told in the New Testament to not forsake the assembly of the faithful in the Church (Hebrews 10:25). Moreover, we must climb onto the Cross with our Lord in order to crucify our flesh along with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). In this way, we shall climb the Ladder and ascend to heaven. This is why Christ tells us that in order to be made worthy of discipleship, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). This is something we must do daily, for it is he who endures till the end that will be saved (Matthew 24:13). Let us think of each day as a rung of mortification on this ladder we climb upon, as we make our way as sojourning pilgrims to our heavenly home.

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 
—Philippians 2:12-13

*The inspiration for this article was sparked by a recent reading of St. John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is written by a desert monk in the 7th century detailing the various hardships of intense monasticism and mastering of virtues through trial and tribulation witnessed in the religious life. Here is a brief excerpt from the book:

Tell us, fairest of virtues, where thou feedest thy flock, where thou restest at noon. Enlighten us, quench our thirst, guide us, take us by the hand; for we wish at last to soar to thee. Thou rulest over all. And now thou hast ravished my soul. I cannot contain thy flame. So I will go forward praising thee. Thou rulest the power of the sea, and stillest the surge of its waves and puttest it to death. Thou hast humbled the proud—the proud thought—like a wounded man. With the arm of thy power thou hast scattered thy enemies, and thou hast made thy lovers invincible. But I long to know how Jacob saw thee fixed above the ladder. Satisfy my desire, tell me, What are the means of such an ascent? What the manner, what the law that joins together the steps which thy lover sets as an ascent in his heart? I thirst to know the number of those steps, and the time needed for the ascent. The king, as if appearing to me from heaven and as if speaking in the ear of my soul, said: Unless, beloved, you renounce your gross flesh, you cannot know my beauty. May this ladder teach you the spiritual combination of the virtues.

—St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Ch. 30

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