Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis is one of the most fascinating and mysterious stories in all of Scripture. Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing from his brother Esau and ran away with his family. But Esau has come looking for him full of fury, he imagines, and the meeting is to take place the following day. So, Jacob sends his whole family across the river to safety, and as night comes we read, “Jacob was left alone.” In those simple words we can sense Jacob’s fear, his anguished imaginings before meeting Esau. But in the middle of the night a mysterious man appears to Jacob, and this man starts to wrestle with him. They wrestle all night until daybreak. This was no ordinary man. In the Fogg art museum here in Cambridge there is a wonderful painting of Jacob wrestling with this mysterious stranger. The painting is by the French nineteenth century artist Gustave Moreau, and I go back often to look at it. For Moreau the man Jacob is fighting is clearly an angel, a magnificent figure dazzling bright. The fight is very uneven. Jacob is fighting with all his strength, but the angel uses just one arm to effortlessly hold him down. For of course the angel is infinitely more powerful than Jacob. Nevertheless, the angel clearly wants to fight, and Jacob never gives up.
Every time I stand in front of this painting and reflect on this story, I seem to understand more and more spiritual truths about our relationship with God. Jacob fights with God and never gives up. This man who knows that he has cheated his brother out of his blessing, brings all this anguish to the fight. He wrestles with everything he knows about himself, his past actions, his present situation. He comes to God in openness and honesty, with all that he is, good and bad, and wrestles with God, and will not let go until God blesses him. And God honors his struggle, and indeed blesses him. God blesses him with the gifts he will need to enter into the vocation which has always been his. Now you are ready. “You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel “For you have striven with God and prevailed”.
God, I believe, likes us to struggle with God. For that is how we grow and become more fully the person God created us to be. When we are with God our prayers should never be bland, perfunctory, passionless words, words, words. Our prayers should express our deepest longings, our struggles, our anger, our anguish. Bring it all to the fight. ‘I won’t let you go Lord, until you bless me.’ Bring everything we know about ourselves to God – our past, our present situation. Lay it all before God. Now bless me as I move into an uncertain future. Give me your strength. Form me and mold me, batter my heart, until I become the person you long for me to become. I too want to be able to say, “I have striven with God and prevailed.”
God wants us to prevail, but also knows that the struggle is an integral part of the blessing. The spiritual journey is fraught with struggle, and we are tempted to give up. But Jacob did not give up, and neither should we. ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ And in that struggle Jacob grew in stature before God. He grew into the man whom God could now entrust with his vocation to be Israel, the father of a nation.
Jacob came out of the encounter with God a new man. A new name is a sign of a new self. A man who has seen the face of God and still lives is now ready for his new vocation. But Jacob comes out of this encounter with something else: a limp. The angel struck him on the hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint. Why? I think the writer of Genesis was expressing a deep truth that when we draw near to God, when we struggle with God, as well as receiving a blessing, we may also receive a wound – perhaps a wound of love, but a wound nonetheless. But the wound, this limp, did not diminish Jacob; paradoxically it made him more complete. It became a sign of his encounter with God and of the blessing he received.
I think those of us who have struggled with God, who have struggled to understand and enter into our vocation, who have struggled to be blessed by God, we may well have our own limp. The sign of our struggle, the things we have been through, a sign of our vulnerability and our growth. Our limp is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of what we have overcome and what God has done for us, what has made us stronger and wiser. Perhaps St Paul’s thorn in the flesh was his limp. A reminder of the struggle, but also of the blessing. A wound of love.
This strange and fascinating story of Jacob and the Angel can I think, help us reflect on our own spiritual journey; the joys and the blessings as well as the wounds, as we struggle to live our life with honesty and integrity, as we continue to struggle with God in the living out of our vocation.
It seems to me, finally, that when we get to heaven, God will recognize us not so much by our achievements, our gifts and talents. God, I think will recognize us by our limp, by our wounds received in the struggle. God will love us for them, and God will bless us.
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