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Scala Santa

by C. H. Spurgeon
From the January 1874 Sword and Trowel


WHILE traveling in Italy it was our good fortune to fall in with our esteemed friend, Dr. Jobson, a Wesleyan brother well known to fame as a preacher of the gospel, and known also to his numerous friends as an artist of no mean order. By his kindness we are able to present our readers with a view of the stairs on the north side of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, at Rome, which are superstitiously reputed to be the identical steps which our Savior descended when he left the judgment hall of Pilate. No mention is made of steps in the gospels, but that is of small consequence to the Church of Rome, which recognizes tradition as quite sufficient authority. There are twenty-eight marble steps of considerable breadth, and we are asked to believe that they were transported from Jerusalem to Rome by miraculous agency. We remember a cottage which was so dilapidated that, to our knowledge, the father gathered up the steps of the stairs, and sent his boy with them to the landlord, with the message, "Please, sir, father has sent you our stairs, and would be glad of a new set," but these marble slabs are in excellent repair and of great weight, and must have required a considerable amount of angelic engineering to remove them to their present site. However, for many a long year doubters concerning the authenticity of the holy stairs have been judged to be rank infidels, and have been considered worthy of the direst pains of perdition. Those who adored the Pope,

"And kissed—whatever he gave them to kiss,
Toe, relic, embroidery, nought came amiss,"

were of course reverent kissers of the staircase, but that is not all, for so powerful was the superstitious esteem for these steps that persons of a better sort who renounced other follies yet clung to the virtues of the Scala Santa, and cling to them even now. "But," said one who had been convinced of the absurdity of worshipping the Virgin and the Bambino, "you cannot deny that the steps of the Scala Santa are very holy, and that it is well to pray upon them."
    Two years ago we stood at the foot of the staircase, and saw persons of both sexes, and all ages and conditions, climbing up these stairs upon their knees. The marble is protected by planks of wood, which, it is said, have been three times worn away by the knees of penitents, and as often renewed. We could quite believe it, for the kneeling traffic before us was very great. It was a mournful spectacle to look up and see poor human nature so degraded as to be crawling up a staircase with the view of reaching heaven, and it was sadder still to stand at the top and look down upon the faces of the ascending devotees. Some of them appeared to be going through the performance with light hearts, but others were quite absorbed in their prayers and genuflections. In the wood of the bottom, middle, and uppermost steps there is an opening, through which the marble appears, and here each climber pauses and kisses the stone, because there our Lord is reported to have fallen, groaned, or fainted, we forget which. We were not permitted to walk up this blessed piece of deception, but we ascended by one of the parallel staircases which flank it on either hand, down which the penitents descend. At the top is a painting of the Savior, in which he is represented at the age of twelve as five feet eight inches in height; this famous daub is ascribed to St. Luke, and held in the utmost veneration. The present Pope has expended large sums upon the buildings which enclose the Scala Santa, both in repairs and decorations. Last year, on our second visit, the Scala Santa were but very scantily furnished with worshippers; indeed, business seemed to be at a very low ebb in most of the churches, and we were led to hope that the trade in "the Roman row" of Vanity Fair was going to the dogs, as it deserved.
    Now, it is one thing to read and write this description, but it was quite another matter to be present in body and see the whole affair in actual operation. One can be cool and prudent at a distance, for the abomination does not strike the mind so vividly; but to stand there and see those detestable priests looking on with an ill-concealed contempt for the crawling crowd of deluded men and women, looking, as Luther would say, "as if the poor laity stank in their sacred noses," made our blood boil, and gave our language a flavor akin to David's fiercer psalms. Never did we more greatly marvel at the mercy of God, which holds back his thunderbolts from destroying those wretched shavelings who deceive the people. It was very wrong, no doubt, but a man must be even more perfect than John Wesley, or Pearsall Smith, if he can look upon such a scene without righteous indignation, intensified by a little mixture of human nature. We hope we did not imprecate vengeance upon anybody, Jesuit or Pope, but we do not feel quite sure about it. Happily for us we were at that time accosted by a gentleman, a member of the English Church, who expressed himself very forcibly upon the humiliating scene before us. This furnished us with a diversion, for we said to him, "This is what your church is coming to; the baptismal regeneration of the Prayer Book is rotting her through and through, and breeding in her all the evils of Popery." He mildly expostulated, but added that after what he had seen of Romanism he did not wonder at honest men using the strongest possible language, and even going to an extreme in their protests. Our abhorrence of Popery and everything verging upon it rose to a white heat as we saw how it can lower an intelligent nation to the level of fetish worship, and associate the name of the ever-blessed Jesus with a groveling idolatry. If our mild milk-and-water Protestants could see Popery with their own eyes, they might have less to say against Orange bigotry; and if those who play at ornate worship could see whither their symbolism tends, they would start back aghast, and adhere henceforth to the severest simplicity. Perhaps Luther would never have become a Reformer had it not been for his visit to Rome and his ascent of these very stairs. In the city where he expected to find the church of God in all its holiness, he found sin rampant beyond all precedent. "It is almost incredible," says he, "what infamous actions are committed at Rome; one would require to see it and hear it in order to believe it. It is an ordinary saying that if there is a hell, Rome is built upon it. It is an abyss from whence all sins proceed." Nor did he speak as an exaggerating enthusiast, for Machiavelli's witness was that the nearer you came to the capital of Christendom the less you found of the Christian spirit. "We Italians," said the great historian, "are chiefly indebted to the church and the priests for our having become a set of profane scoundrels." Undeceived as to the holiness of Popedom by his own actual observation in its chief city, Luther was in a fit state to be delivered from its thralldom, and the hand which set him free snapped his fetters for him upon the very stairs which we have described, and which our friend has depicted. The historian of the Reformation thus describes the sudden enlightenment of Luther's mind:—
    "One day, among others, wishing to gain an indulgence which the Pope had promised to every one who should on his knees climb up what is called Pilate's Stair, the Saxon monk was humbly crawling up the steps, which he was told had been miraculously transported to Rome from Jerusalem. But while he was engaged in this meritorious act, he thought he beard a voice of thunder which cried at the bottom of his heart, as at Wittenberg and Bologna, 'The just shall live by faith.' These words, which had already on two different occasions struck him like the voice of an angel of God, resounded loudly and incessantly within him. He rises up in amazement from the steps along which he was dragging his body. Horrified at himself, and ashamed to see how far superstition has abased him, he flies far from the scene of his folly.
    "In regard to this mighty word there is something mysterious in the life of Luther. It proved a creating word both for the Reformer and for the Reformation. It was by it that God then said, 'Let light be, and light was.' It is often necessary that a truth, in order to produce its due effect on the mind, should be repeatedly presented to it. Luther had carefully studied the Epistle to the Romans, and yet, though justification by faith is there taught, he had never seen it so clearly. Now he comprehended the righteousness which alone can stand in the presence of God; now he received from God himself, by the hand of Christ, that obedience which he freely imputes to the sinner as soon as he humbly turns his eye to the God-Man who was crucified. This is the decisive period in the internal life of Luther. The faith which saved him from the terrors of death became the soul of his theology, his fortress in all dangers, the stamina of his discourse, the stimulant of his love, the foundation of his peace, the spur of his labors, his consolation in life and in death.
    "But this great doctrine of a salvation which emanates from God and not from man, was not only the power of God to save the soul of Luther, it also became the power of God to reform the Church; a powerful weapon which the apostles wielded, a weapon too long neglected, but at length brought forth in its primitive luster from the arsenal of the mighty God. At the moment when Luther stood up in Rome, all moved, and thrilling with the words which Paul had addressed fifteen centuries before to the inhabitants of this metropolis, truth, till then a fettered captive within the church, rose up also, never again to fall.
    "Here we must let Luther speak for himself. 'Although I was a holy and irreproachable monk, my conscience was full of trouble and anguish. I could not bear the words, 'Justice of God.' I loved not the just and holy God who punishes sinners. I was filled with secret rage against him, and hated him, because, not satisfied with terrifying his miserable creatures, already lost by original sin, with his law and the miseries of life, he still further increased our torment by the gospel. . . . But when, by the Spirit of God, I comprehended these words; when I learned how the sinner's justification proceeds from the pure mercy of the Lord by means of faith, then I felt myself revived like a new man, and entered at open doors into the very paradise of God. From that time, also, I beheld the precious sacred volume with new eyes. I went over all the Bible, and collected a great number of passages which taught me what the work of God was. And as I had previously, with all my heart, hated the words, 'Justice of God,' so from that time I began to esteem and love them, as words most sweet and most consoling. In truth, these words were to me the true gate of paradise.'"
    As the Scala Santa thus became the place of salvation to the great reformer, so may our reference to them be made serviceable to those of our readers who have not yet found peace with God. The motive which leads men to crawl upon their knees up these famous stairs is the worldwide principle of self-salvation. Do is the popular gospel of unregenerate human nature: It is all done is the glad tidings of the grace of God. You, dear reader, are perhaps trying to be better in act, better in feeling, better in resolution, and this with the view of commending yourself to the favor of God. What is this but your Pilate's Stairs? You will find that all your efforts are labor in vain, for by the works of the law no man will ever be justified before God. The gospel does not promise eternal life to good works, or prayers, or tears, or horrible feelings; its one great utterance is, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." May the Holy Spirit with divine power force upon every self-righteous mind the conviction of its own ruin, and of the hopelessness of its own efforts, and so may the soul become willing to accept eternal life as the gift of God by Jesus Christ.

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