The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
© 2012 Frank B. Crumbaugh III
The Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu1 stands South of The Temple Mount on the Jerusalem side of wadi Kidron, right opposite the Mount of Olives. It stands over the site of Caiaphas’ house, where Jesus was first examined in the early hours of Good Friday; during that examination Simon Peter denies knowing Jesus, and it is from that denial that the place takes its name.2 It was on this spot that His foregone condemnation was confirmed by the kangaroo court of the Jewish leadership of Jerusalem, and from here Caiaphas and his cronies send Jesus on to Pilate. The Church is the latest iteration in a series of Churches that have stood there, and it is beautiful.
In the west wall of the Church, there is a sign imbedded in the stucco, made in tile and bearing the legend
HOLY STAIRS ONLY→
When I saw the sign, everything from an exclamation made to a person named Only, to Led Zeppelin’s 1971 smash hit Stairway to Heaven flashed in my head. The eccentric ambiguity of that sign tickled me, and I had my photograph taken with the sign in the background. That sign became a focal point for meditation and prayer on the day I first saw it, and I have revisited those prayers and meditations often since returning from Jerusalem.
Why in English rather than Latin or Arabic or Greek, or even Hebrew...or French for goodness’ sake, since it is a Francophone community that occupies and maintains the Church? Given their location at a place where self-interest and fear revealed cowardice, how could any stairs there be holy? If the sign denotes specific usage, was it meant to identify architecture for use by pilgrims only? By local prelates? Only on feast days? If the stairs themselves are holy, what was the sanctifying moment that set them apart? And if so, where are the common stairs from which these holy stairs are distinguished?
Such are the musings of your Priest and Rector...mental fragments run amok in the mind of a middle-aged man with just barely enough learning and wisdom to be dangerous.
Stairs take the walker from one place to another, changing the elevation of the walker higher or lower off the ground in the course of transiting the stairs. Stairs are defined by their function as places of change, where one state and place is changed for another. That I think is the key to the holy stairs at Saint Peter in Gallicantu.
The Good News of God in Christ Jesus is found even and especially in a place where one friend does not, in an important moment, have his friend’s back. The shocking realization of hearing the rooster’s song is a realization that changes Peter forever. The cock crowing informs Peter that his own good intentions are trite, and his righteous declarations are worthless. Peter’s moment of change first acknowledges that this change is a blessing because it is a painful truth that only His Love can redeem. Jesus is true to Peter even when Peter is not true to Him, in a moment in fact when Peter is not only Faithless to Jesus but also to himself. Jesus’ lack of contempt for him doubles Peter’s own contempt for himself, and in that awful moment, Peter is on holy stairs going to a different place...
I know where two flights of holy stairs are- the stairs at Saint Peter in Gallicantu, and my own. Where are yours? What stairs are holy in your life? Where is the holy stairway that can change the elevation of who you are, how you behave, and what you think? As with Peter, my guess is that our holy stairs often are located where we find our deepest, most shameful flaws...stairs springing from a place of cowardice or embarrassment or fear, a place of diffuse historic anger, or recognized but self-excused unrepented sin...stairs that cannot perhaps help but go up since they begin at our lowest point.
Where do the holy stairs in your life begin? Where are the holy stairs in your life taking you? Do you believe that they can take you away from their cock’s crow beginning? Do you believe that they will?
Love you. See you in Church.
1“The Church of Saint Peter and the Rooster’s Song,” an allusion to the cock crowing after Peter’s denial of Jesus.
2 Our assumptions tell us that Churches are to be dedicated to the best among us, and the noblest behaviors they displayed in Faith...Saint Mary the Virgin, Saint Paul, The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, you get the idea....and if Churches are named for events, we assume those dedications will follow a similar pattern- The Church of The Annuncation, The Church of The Nativity, The Church of The Epiphany, etc. Saint Peter in Gallicantu is named for a moment that is awful...we might call it “The Church of Not-Peter’sFinest-Hour,” or “The Church of Canon-Law-Abused-by-those-who-knew-Better.”
I am grateful to have the example of “The Church of Peter’s Cowardice,” “The Church of Not-Being-a-Stand-up-Guy.” When we dedicate Churches remembering saintly martyrdoms and amazing miracles, we draw strength from the holy, perhaps sacrificial, moments that give us the name. When we build Churches like Saint Peter in Gallicantu, we remind ourselves that 1) not all moments in the lives of Faithful people are moments of forthright, honorable behavior, and 2) God can redeem anything, anyone, anytime, anywhere. Though (wisely) not a widespread practice, I am grateful to have places of worship like this one set aside to remind us that it is God’s goodness as much as it is Faithful endurance or heroism that should inspire our devotion.
Perhaps you're a visitor on Long Beach Island. Maybe you haven't been in Church for a while and would like to start back. Whatever is going on in your life, you are welcome at Holy Innocents. Your past affiliations don't mean nearly as much to us as your present affiliation with us.
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between Atlantic and Beach)
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