If you leave the Jardin de Luxembourg and head down the Rue to Bonaparte about half way along one reaches the Place St. Sulpice with its bustling market and inevitable pavement cafes. Entering the early 18th century church of St.Sulpice and turning right into a large side chapel brings you face to face with Eugene Delacroix’s vast mural of Jacob wresting with an angel. In some ways it’s a typical Delacroix picture , on a big scale and clearly in the Romantic tradition. Tree trucks and foliage frame the figures of Jacob and the angel. The angel with big black wings lifts the struggling figure of Jacob by the thigh
Its a powerful image of Jacob’s tenacious faith, of God’s all powerful love and of the grace and blessing of God.
Jacob wrestles all night with an unnamed opponent often depicted as an angel. Jacob as Abraham’s grandson stands at the beginnings of the story of the relationship between God and his people. But Jacob is no pious do-gooder – in fact quite the opposite, Jacob is a grabber, a twister and a double crosser all in the name of God. Look at the story of his birth, look at his stealing of his brothers birthright.
But when Jacob is left alone having sent his two wives, his two maids and his eleven children ahead of him, when Jacob is left alone he is brought face to face with the reality of a God who will not and cannot be tricked by Jacob’s double crossing. As one commentator puts it: “Jacob had until this moment been a grabber. Now in wrestling with the angel he accepts that life cannot be grabbed. The angel brings home to him the limits of his world, as it were, the reality of the world of others”.
Jacob’s encounter with the angel is not a happy ever after story – Jacob is wounded by the encounter, he will from now on always walk with a limp. And the end of the encounter does not mark the beginning of a period of prosperity and success for Jacob but the long decline into old age, pain and sadness over the enmity between his sons and twenty one years of grieving for his favourite son Joseph who he thought had been killed by wild animals. Why so much heartache after meeting an angel of God?
In many ways we could say that the answer is one we know already from the reality of our own journeying with Christ. Our encounter with Christ today has some similarities with Jacob’s encounter with the angel. Because Christ, like the angel, sees us for who we really are and loves us as we are, because God in Christ locked himself into a struggle with humanity that was as much about the blessing of humanity as it was about a confrontation over wrong-doing. And like Jacob we always come away not with a sense of our own personal wholeness, an individualistic integrity but rather, limping, aware that we have engaged with a reality, bigger, more open than ourselves, a reality that makes us keenly aware of our own dependence, our reliance on the fragmentary relationships we have built for ourselves. As for Jacob, so for us, meeting God is not so much about happiness as about the pain of dislocation.
Jacob, like the woman in this mornings gospel reading, is tenacious, he won’t let go until he has what he wants.
It seems to me that this is a little of what prayer might be about. It is true that Jacob in his wrestling with the angel discovers that life is not just about grabbing, but nevertheless, it is his unwillingness to let go that gains him the blessing. We have lost some of this grabbing tenaciousness. There is a passivity to much contemporary spirituality– making us believe that prayer is always about us, about becoming more balanced, calm and spiritual people. But as we all know prayer does not stop us cursing the cat, losing our tempers or being deeply irritated by our nearest and dearest – and neither does it bring us instant happiness. Prayer is not a spiritual workout for the soul, it is merely about being creatures aware of our need for God, groping our way back to the reality of God, a reality we thought we could avoid through our own search for personal gratification.
If our prayerful persistence is rewarded then maybe one day, like Jacob, we will find ourselves locked body to body with the angel of the Lord and cry with Jacob “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved”. Amen.