Saturday, 29 October 2016
Jacob and the Angel: meditation on a doorstep
There's a striking medieval sculpture on the door-jamb of the north west door as you go inside the great Basilica at Vézelay in Burgundy. It's the only piece of Romanesque you'll see outside - all the rest is imitation by the nineteenth century architect Viollet le Duc who restored the crumbling church. This one sculpture is worth pausing by before you venture into the narthex and the glories that are there.
It shows Jacob wrestling with the angel. It's derived from the story that is told in Genesis 32.
The same night he [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (New Revised Standard Version, quoted with acknowledgment.)
It's a strange, unsettling story that's given plenty of scope to the commentators - whole books have been written about it. But the context in Genesis makes it clear that it's a pivotal experience for Jacob. He is anxious at the prospect of meeting his elder twin Esau whom he has defrauded of both his birthright and his inheritance. This night-time watery struggle with an unknown visitant seems to symbolise a profound inward uncertainty, not to say conflict, about both his identity and destiny. It's as if he needs to become aware that life is far more mysterious and elusive than he has hitherto grasped. Only when he has come to this point of recognition is he capable of coming out of the water and continuing his journey. He has prevailed and found blessing, yet his unknown - unknowable? - assailant will not disclose himself. Why is it that you ask my name? Yet Jacob acquire a new name for himself, that of a victor. Israel means "a prince with God". This, and the sun rising upon him, both suggest that a defining and life-changing rite of passage has taken place.
Let's look at it as the sculpture presents it, particularly in relation to its position at the entrance of the church. (We must bear in mind that this may not be its original medieval setting - I've not been able to find out whether the or not the Victorian restoration may be responsible for placing it there.) To see the capital squarely, you have to face across the doorway and look south. That's to say, you need to stop and turn to it. I find that in itself significant. Crossing any threshold is always an action that is significant - that's why gates and doorways are so often highlighted architecturally as places of special symbolism. And when it's a doorway into a sacred space, you can expect it to be particularly charged with life-meanings.
So what is this beautiful sculpture saying to us who enter (or leave) the church?
I think it's something like this. When you cross this threshold of a church, you are entering a world that is not altogether like our everyday lives. Here, we grasp how life is about more than what we can see or touch or handle. The mystery of things is recognised and acknowledged, what Rudolph Otto in his book on religious experience The Idea of the Holy famously described as Mysterium Tremens et Fascinans. Religion is not all light and certain conviction - far from it. There is a shadow, a night-time aspect in which unknowing, doubt, struggle and even fear rise to the surface. We long for the sunrise and the clear light of day, and we imagine that this is what will be vouchsafed in the sacred space set apart for the worship of God. After all, isn't religion supposed to be about illumination and enlightenment? Instead, we often find ourselves immersed into even greater mystery where big questions are opened up - about the world, about ourselves, about what life is all about, about suffering and pain, about God himself.
All this, I think, is symbolised by the sculpture that guards the portal of the church. As you look at it, the angel has his back to the light so that he casts a shadow across Jacob. (Paradoxically, the only time Jacob's face is lit up is when the setting sun in the west illuminates the west front of the Basilica.) That angelic shadow contains both a warning and a promise. It warns us: don't expect easy answers in here. Religious faith won't provide them. It may be a discomforting place where you will feel your anxieties and dilemmas - if, that is, you come in as a truth-seeker rather than a pretender or play-actor.
But there's a promise too in Jacob's face and the sun that lights it up. It assures us that by crossing this threshold and entering into the mystery of the "holy" on the other side, we shall be given what we need more than anything else to negotiate the complexities of life: courage, hope, the sense of not being alone, confidence in a future (symbolised by the sunrise) that we are drawn towards, reassurance that all shall be well. We shall be given tools to make important connections. Religion is not an easy rescue from our troubles but a way of facing them with integrity and faith.
Charles Wesley wrote a famous hymn Come, O thou Traveller Unknown based on this story. One of its verses goes thus:
Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.
And in the next verse comes the marvellous discovery: Thy nature and Thy Name is Love! In the story, in the sculpture, in the hymn, it has taken a life-and-death struggle to reach this point. Faith is hard-won, and the older we get, the more we are right to suspect that it is not always going to be easy. But that's precisely what makes the journey worth travelling. And if we are limping because the struggle has been hard, it's evidence that we have experienced something real. In the dark, it was "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God". But when the day breaks and the shadows flee away, we know that this is precisely where our humanity, our safety and our healing lie.