Access control is big business.
Access control secures environments, assets and information. With the technological revolution, the systems for access control border on being science-fictional, There are card scanners, chip scanners, fingerprint and even iris-of-your-eye scanners to check that only authorized people are given access to the controlled area.
Access control however is not something new. It has for centuries been the practice of organised religion. Visit any Christian Cathedral and you will be confronted by “The Rood Screen”. This screen is usually located at the intersection between the body of the church(the nave) and the chancel (the area reserved for choir and clergy, and is the line where the Rood (the Anglo Saxon words for cross or crucifix) is positioned. The rood screen usually contains wooden lattice work which partially obscures the view of the high altar and the choir stalls. In the liturgy of the Holy Communion or of the other offices of Morning and Evening prayer and so on, the congregation were intended to observe whilst the officials carried out the Opus Dei, the work of God. The Crucifix screened the populace from the true worship of God going on behind.
All of this was of course based on architectural precedents described in the Old Testament Temples and Tabernacles of the Ancient and Pre-Christian Jews of Israel. The Jewish temples were designed as nested rectangles or courts, and access to the central courts was determined by the level or status of the person in the religious hierarchy.
At the centre of the Jerusalem temple was the Holy of Holies, where God lived,and here access was only permitted once a year on the day of Atonement, and only to a single person, the High Priest.
It was believed that nothing impure could survive in the holy presence of God and the High Priest accessing the space and surviving was a sign that God had accepted all the sacrifices offered in the preceding year, since the last Day of Atonement. So strict was the access control that should something go wrong and the High Priest collapse or be smitten by God whilst in the Holy of Holies, a rope was tied around his ankle so that he could be pulled out of the space, because no other official could have gone in to get his body out!
Now that is serious access control.
“Access level in accordance with level of security clearance“, would be the
norm with access control in a security system. “Access according to degree of religious status” would be the church equivalent. Only the Holiest man, (and it was only, ever a man) may enter the Holy of Holies or approach the High Altar of the Cathedral. In fact those levels of rank are still maintained in the titles given to clergy. The Reverend, for the lowly vicar. Right Reverend for the Bishop and topping the summit, the Most Reverend for the Archbishop!
All of this is simply to illustrate how scandalous the message of John the Baptiser must have seemed to those from the religious hierarchy who heard him preach, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
John wasn’t being original, he was quoting the prophet Isaiah.
“Comfort, O comfort my people“, says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
John used the Isaiah call as a basis, but included an interesting twist from Ecclesiastes 1. That depressive and ever so cynical writer had said, ” I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.”
John the Baptizer disagrees with the Ecclesiastes writer.
The crooked can be made straight.
In fact John is pointing to an amazing dynamic that is going to be brought to be in the ministry of the coming one he is adverting to.
Let’s unpack the geo-physical aspects of John’s call.
The mountains are made low: the places where people went to worship. Mountain tops were important real estate as worship sites. To understand the significance of mountains we need to remember that ours are the first generations to be able to get off the ground and into the air and view the earth from above. We cannot know what that has done to our collective religious consciousness. Before manned flight the closest one could get to “heaven” was to go to a mountain top. Small wonder then, that the preferred sites of worship were mountains. The high places competed with each other to be the “best place”. Not only as Jewish places of worship but in all the religions of the time. When the temple was finally built on Mount Zion it was seen as that high place triumphing over all the other altars that existed in Palestine at the time.
The bringing low of the mountains in this statement from John and Isaiah could have a few angles of meaning. It might mean the dissolution of competitive religion. It could point to the flattening of the hierarchical and patriarchal hegemonies of the high place, “Most Reverend” cults. It might also have alluded to the fact that God was drawing closer to humankind. No longer dwelling up there, but coming to be Emmanuel, God with us. In all these scenarios, there is a clear statement of the ending of access control.
Now if mountains were where people worshiped and sacrificed, then valleys were where people fought and worked. Most the battles recorded in scripture occur in valleys and on the plains. Valleys, because they are furthest from God up there, were considered to be furthest from grace. The Valley of the shadow of death is the most famous, but there is also the Valley of Tears, the Valley of Bitterness, and of course the Valley of Hinnom where the early Jerusalem inhabitants sacrificed their children to Molech, and which came to be known as Gehenna the gate of the underworld, and by quite a logical stretch this Gehenna became the foundation of the Christian notion of Hell.
It is these Valleys that will be filled, according to John and Isaiah. Those who feel furthest from God in the Valleys of hell, mourning and suffering will be lifted up onto the level ground, and they will stand equal with the mighty and arrogant “Most Reverend” priests, whose Hierarchical mountains have been brought low.
“Impossible!”, you say.
“Well,” answers John, “the writer of Ecclesiastes said it was impossible for crooked ways to be made straight, but the Coming One, is going to accomplish the impossible, and what is more, all flesh, all creation, will see the Salvation of God”.
It is disturbing to realise just how two thousand years after the preparation, and advent of the Son of Man amongst us, the mountains and high places of religion are still in competition for being the only and best altar, on which the innocent are still sacrificed for their money and their adulation.
Just as disturbing are the unfilled valleys and ravines of poverty, inequality, suffering and hell, that Jesus gave his life to fill up once and for all.
So for as long as the crooked still run their paths, as long as the ways are still rough for the weak and powerless, for as long as religious people gaze dispassionately from the lofty heights at their sisters and brothers suffering in the hellish valleys below; for that long, this preacher will try to uphold the cry of the Baptizer,
“For God’s sake, Prepare the Way of the Lord!
Dismantle the Access Control to the Kingdom.
This is a freeway not a cattle crush!”
May that cry indeed bring some small comfort to God’s people.