LEARNING, TONIGHT, OF TWO different readings of this passage. One will be familiar to my Christian readers, the other to my Jewish ones. There may be some overlap, but they seem to be mutually exclusive. There may be a way to pull in the both-and option, but we’ll see.
The Torah Portion that was read last Shabbat Morning was וַיִּשְׁלַח Vayishlach which means “and he sent”. The important passage, for me, is the wrestling with the angel. I have that as the header image on literally every page and post on this blog. (By way of stealing a bit of the sky from the Doré illustration.) But I do not read it the way the Jewish Tradition does.
“A man wrestled with him: our sages explained that this was the ministering angel of Esau.” A commonplace of Talmudic and midrashic literature is that every nation has its own angelic “minister” who represents its interests before G-d. It is Esau’s angel, then, who attempts to frustrate Jacob’s mission.Source which cites the Talmud and other texts in support
Every Christian commentary I’ve heard on this passage indicates that Jacob is wrestling with God, himself, with even most of the liberal scholarship falling on the side of this being a mythological telling of Jacob wrestling with God. Israel is taken as a literal description of what has just happened (Jacob has wrestled with God) and a prophecy that he has nothing to fear from his brother, Esau, with whom he has also striven. The same commentaries say Jacob is sending his own angels ahead of him (Messangers = Angels, I get it).
Then Jacob and Esau meat and are reconciled. This reunion gets spun into some very interesting symbolism.
Jacob left home to try and control his own destiny but he knew he had to come back – God wanted him in Eretz Israel for his own salvation as well as the blessing he would be to the whole world. To come back into the Land, though, he would need to reconcile with his family – including the ones he had tricked. God needs to make evident that Jacob intends to be here – evident not to God, but to Jacob. So it is fitting that there are trials for Jacob to overcome on his way home. God wants Jacob to see that he – Jacob – wants to be here.
Sometimes, when things are too easy, we are willing to drop them just because they were too easy. When we have to work for them… suddenly I will not let you go until you bless me. This journey home was Jacob’s purgatory. He has more to come, actually. But he’s home for now.
Part of our own journey home is realizing where home really is.
This Sunday was Advent 3, Gaudete Sunday. “Rejoice”, from the Introit Verse in Philippians 4:4, Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Amen, rejoice.
Six years ago on 3 Dec 2016 I walked into St Dominic’s Church for the first time. It was Saturday before the 2nd Sunday of Advent that year. Three days later, as my friend Tim says, I moved in. I was thinking about it this weekend. Six years later and some things have happened. I feel like I’ve been here at least 10 years. One lifelong parishioner assumed I was also a lifer. Look upon this vine you have planted….
In the midst of all life’s changes and passions, I wanted to promise God I would not run away. That if he let me come back to SF from my exile in Alabama, I would stay put. I would root this time. Nothing would be an optional item. Nothing would be expendable. God would be in charge of staying or going. I’m not leaving minus clear indications otherwise.
Six years after walking in the front door, I work for the parish and I’m involved as a Dominican tertiary and also in the formation program for the diaconate. It’s not been easy – there have been many surprising bumps and som very hard knocks. Purgatory is not supposed to be easy. But the end is the reunification of God and Man. The Catholic Answer to Gnosticism is not “God can use matter” or “matter is neutral” or even “don’t worry about matter”. To make a direct pun, matter matters. There is literally nothing in life that is not intended as an action of God’s grace. Your friends, family, even your enemies are there to pour God’s grace into your life for your salvation. This is why icons are bathed in light: all of the universe, all physical matter, is mdiating God’s grace to you if you can but see it. Icons are windows to heaven and heaven is happening here, now.
Is Jacob wrestling God or an Angel sent from Esau? It matters not – for, for him who loves the Lord, all things are God working out his salvation. All angels are divine messengers, no matter who they are guarding. Esau’s angel cannot but be doing God’s will any more or less than any other angel.
As the Rabbis teach, “Only in the Messianic era will the world experience the wholesomeness of the restored relationship between Esau and Jacob, between matter and spirit, between body and soul.”
We are in that era now: these words are fulfilled in your hearing. Indeed, for most of the Church Fathers any theophany in the Older Scriptures is God the Son – this Angel, the Burning Bush, the voice on Sinai. God thw Father speaks, yes, but his word is the Son. God has become man and flesh and spirit are returned to their rightful relationship. Even in the things you fear, Rejoice! God is mysteriously working for your salvation and healing.