Skip and Lenya sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome
Doesn’t that phrase remind you of a mysterious message out of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series? Stairs are not marked, like highways, with white and yellow lines informing drivers to stick to the appropriate side of the street. Escalators, however, are direction specific. Everyone knows that you don’t go up these down staircases. In fact, it’s dangerous. When Nathan was a toddler he tried to tackle them backwards. You guessed it, his fingers got jammed. They shut down the apparatus. And I looked like the world’s worst mother.
Did you know that ancient Israel possessed designated up and down staircases? On the Southern Temple Mount you’ll find one of the most impressive archeological discoveries. First, you’ll see the Western and Southern walls in their full height and grandeur. But leading up to them, you’ll also encounter the Southern Steps that rise up to the Huldah Gates and into the temple itself.
Astoundingly, some of the stairs are authentic as they lead their way up from the City of David. Common people climbed these steps on their way to worship. The city’s rabbis and elders met there to make important decisions. One can actually say that Jesus probably walked “right here.” “In the 1970’s Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was visiting the steps near the southern wall. When he realized that Jesus had walked here, he said he was more excited to stand here than on the moon.”
There are two sets of Huldah Gates at the top of the Southern Steps. The “double gate” lies right beneath the al-Aqsa mosque, now behind the Turkish wall. If you look to the right or east several dozen yards you’d discover three blocked gates that make up the eastern Huldah Gate (the triple gate). Ingress into the temple came up the Southern Steps through the western Huldah Gate. Those departing the temple left through the eastern triple gate.
However, there was one exception to this traffic pattern. A person ending their mourning or being restored from excommunication would walk up the down staircase. This precedent is found in Masechet Midot, chapter 2, mishnah 2. Why did the rabbis include this ritual? For comfort and consolation. The person who returned to worship after suffering would encounter those leaving the temple, face to face. And as each passed by, they would speak a word of blessing or encouragement. “May God bless you.” “Welcome back to God’s House.” “God restore His joy and keep you.” Imagine how the absentee attendee felt?
This weekend, I got to walk up the down staircase at Calvary. Holding my husband’s hand, I walked out onto stage to see God’s people after a month of discovery, diagnosis, surgery, and recovery. And they clapped their hands, laughed or cried, and called out words of encouragement to me. I was uplifted on angel’s wings. If you’ve been avoiding church because of sorrow or sin, won’t you come in the door backwards? Saints are waiting to welcome you home with a smile and a blessing.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4