Stairway to Heaven is, perhaps, my favorite song of all time. I was a big Led Zeppelin fan growing up. A case can be made that Stairway to Heaven is the greatest rock song of all time. It has all the elements of a great song. It has great melody. It has thoughtful, poetic lyrics. It rises and builds from a delicately unforgettable introduction to a crescendo of orchestration that matches the sweep of the lyrics with one of the most iconic guitar solos ever performed.
I am not one of those people who listen to music first for the lyrics. I hear the music first. I may never really learn the lyrics. Sometimes, I can’t even remember the song title. So, as I listened to the song recently, some 45 years or so after I first heard it, I realized that the song is about inspiration and hope. I hadn’t really thought about it much before. I just liked the song.
Like many rock songs, Stairway to Heaven was written with the seemingly eternal exuberance of youth and youthful energy. Though I am much older now, it, still resonates. It’s still sits in the pocket for me. It’s still a song of hope, ultimately, but I now have a different perspective.
Like many rock songs that capture the hard charging energy of youth, there is a lot of heat (emotion, raw and naive idealism and Utopian hope), but not a lot of light. In middle age, we remember these feelings with fond nostalgia. Music is a powerful medium for memory. We might even be tempted to latch hold again of that bare hope that hangs in the euphoric ether of our memory and listening pleasure.
In retrospect now i hear the lyrics in light of John Bonham, the feted drummer for Led Zeppelin, died almost 40 years ago now. The band never played together again after his death, but for a reunion concert tour. Their “eternal summer” ended, but the music lives on (as they say).
Many rock stars didn’t advance very far beyond their wild youths. The ones that have survived to old age are grizzled and worn. We hardly recognize many of them anymore, though the fact that their music lives on creates an illusion that the reality to which we one clung in our own youth is always new and never fading.
But, we know it ain’t so. Still, we like the feeling that it is so.
Led Zeppelin climbed to the pinnacle of fame and human accomplishment in a short, exhilarating decade. And then they were gone. Yes, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are still alive, and still making some music somewhere. They will always have their place in music history as legends of Rock and Roll, but they seem more like legends now. Their legacy is old and worn with the distinct patina of times gone by. Within another decade or less, all of the members will likely be gone.
What is a decade in the eons of time? What is even a lifetime?
Our lives are “dust in the wind”, as another rock legend crooned about the same time that Led Zeppelin reached the height of its glory. We (all of us) are like mists in the ever stretching expanse of space and time. We are insignificant specks In the dark space of the universe and the bright light of eternity – if indeed, there is a heaven.
“People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades.” (1 Peter 1:24)
I believe heaven does exist. I believe that God set eternity in our hearts. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) That’s why we wish we could build a stairway to heaven.
Otherwise, why would we even care?
Why aren’t we content to live and to die, like all the rest of the creatures under the sun?
In spite of the seeming stark reality of death, we want to build a stairway to heaven. We can almost taste, touch and feel it in our youth, and we rue it in our old age.
Is it just a fool’s errand, a dreamers delusion? We who dare to dream that we can attain to the heights do so in spite of the nagging feeling that we are doomed to a shallow grave.
Some of us settle for a legacy that we can leave behind us. Others wish for the escape of nirvana or karma, hoping that our lives might tip the scale to a better, but nevertheless ultimately equally futile, future.
Is a never ending treadmill our only hope? Coming back lifetime after lifetime, accepting the setbacks with the advances, with no hope for an off ramp?
The fondly nostalgic anthem of my youth promises an exhilarating, naive hope, but it still beckons after all these years. It is an example of the eternal optimism of the human heart. A cynic in his old age might scoff at that youthful naiveté, but it persists. It still draws us in when we let our guards down.
I’ve looked into many world religions and philosophies. Most of them present a version of a stairway to heaven. The materialist and nihilist versions don’t. They are resigned to the conclusion that this material world is all there is, and nothing transcendent, like a stairway to heaven, exists. All of the other religions and philosophies hold out some hope that we can build that stairway to heaven.
That hope is pregnant in the question that was presented to Jesus,
“What must I do to inherit the kingdom of God?” (Like 18:18)
The stairway to heaven comes wrapped in different packages: achieving cosmic oneness, Nirvana, reincarnation into higher life forms and consciousness, a paradise earned by balancing the scale on the good deed side of the ledger, “doing the best we can do” and hoping for the best, and so on. Even the materialist hopes to leave a legacy that will be remembered after death – a reductionist kind of stairway to heaven.
Other than the cynical materialist or stoic nihilist, I know of only one religion or philosophy that doesn’t promise a stairway to heaven. This religion dispels that notion that we can build our own stairway to heaven (as the ancients tried in the story of the Tower of Babel). This religion holds out no hope that people can build that stairway by any human effort. None of us are good enough. (Romans 3:10)
On the alter of that judgment, Jesus resurrected hope – not in anything we can do, but in what He has done.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Sure, most major religions offer some kind of grace and hope in the power and will of the divine to aid us in our journey, but one is different from the rest. Listen to these words:
“Jesus said …, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live….'” (John 11:25)
“Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” (john 8:12)
“Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.'” (John 6:35)
“Jesus answered, ‘… whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’” (John 4:13-14)
God set eternity in our hearts so that we would seek for it and find Him. (Acts 17:27)
“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)
Jesus echoed these words when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8) In the light of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, which are the backdrop to the words Jesus spoke, the end of our seeking is as important as the seeking.
We may desire to build a stairway to heaven, but, unless we desire heaven’s God, what we seek will elude us. It turns out that there is a stairway to heaven. The cross is our stairway to heaven.
These thoughts were prompted by watching this dramatic recreation of Stairway to Heaven.