Jacob’s Ladder

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    The image of Jacob’s Ladder comes, as you probably know, from the story in the Hebrew Bible — what we sometimes call the Old Testament — of the Patriarch Jacob’s dream about a stairway reaching all the way to heaven and God’s messengers going up and down it. Genesis 28:10-22.

    This stairway, which was called a ladder in some translations and which was popularized in the African-American spiritual, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” symbolized the ‘help’ that God gives to God’s people while they are journeying on earth. The stairway was the symbol of God’s connection to the chosen people. And the messengers going up and down were ‘evidence,’ so to speak, of God’s continual provision for the people while the earthly journey was going on.

    The ancient Israelites had a significantly different understanding of life-beyond-death than we as Catholic Christians do. In fact, many scholars would argue that at the early period represented in the Jacob stories, these ancient Hebrew people had no sense of life-beyond-death at all; I tend to agree with that scholarly assessment of the ancient Hebrew mind-set. But what I think doesn’t really matter for your question.

    The point is that for the ancient Israelites who heard and then later who read this story about Jacob and the stairway to heaven, the emphasis was on God’s provision for the people in the here and now. Jacob’s Ladder in this biblical context really didn’t have any particular importance for life-after-death.

    However, when early Christianity (wisely) decided to adopt the Hebrew Bible as an integral part of our own Scripture, we started reading those ancient stories from a different point-of-view. And clearly the Resurrection of the Lord made belief in life-after-death one of the primary tenets of our Christian faith. So, when Christians would read the Hebrew Scriptures we saw God’s revelation of different meaning in those Scriptures than had the early Hebrew people.

    From that Christian perspective, then, the story of Jacob’s dream, with the stairway in it, came to have a different meaning and significance.

    We still see that the messengers going up and down the stairway suggests God’s willingness to provide for us on our earthly journey, but we also see another meaning implicit in Jacob’s dream.

    Since we know that we are destined to share the Lord’s Resurrection, we believe in life-after-death. Furthermore, we believe that in the great communion of saints we are ‘connected to’ those who have gone before marked with the sign of faith — as Eucharistic Prayer I says.

    The “ladder” came to be seen by Christians as representing that “link” between heaven and earth which binds us to those saints whom we celebrate on All Saints’ Day.

    God’s messengers going up and down came to represent the fact that our prayers can assist those souls in Purgatory who are awaiting their final entrance into the full glory of heaven. Just as the messengers brought help to Jacob in the dream and as they carried Jacob’s supplication and prayer up to heaven, so they represent our prayers “going up Jacob’s ladder” on behalf of the faithful departed.


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