Today we shall hallow above that 1962 installation, a roundel by Graham Jones in memory of Anne Griffiths, long-time, neighbour, pillar, churchwarden, flower-arranger friend. And how lovely that her family have been so much a part of this project.
How dreadful is this place, Jacob says, this is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven.
As you enter this church, engraved above the door are those very words.
We often say that pictures speak louder than words and the icon in the order of service is a complex and beautiful telling of aspects of this morning’s first lesson where indeed Jacob says “How dreadful is this place, this is none other than the house of God.”
What have we got in the pictures, how do they relate to the story we heard, our Gospel reading and what we are saying about this building in relation to our faith?
What’s in the icons. You have to look at them: right-left-middle.
So, on the right is a depiction of today’s reading. Jacob has fled from his parents’ home, escaping his brother Esau’s wrath. Jacob means heel, he was born second grabbing his older brother’s heel. He was a heel, he stole his older brother’s blessing. A usurping toe-rag his only option was to skulk off to cousins to do the best he could for himself. In his lonely wanderings, he falls asleep, and has this extraordinary vision. He sees God himself at the top of a long ladder, the connection between heaven and earth. And he is promised that not just in this place, but everywhere, he might encounter God, for the Lord will be with him. Jacob awakes, assured by this blessing, but aware of the holiness nevertheless of the place itself. It is named Bethel, House of God, and its place in the early history of Israel will go on to be significant. So much for the first picture on the right. Twenty years elapse. Jacob makes his way in the world, marries his cousins, Leah and Rachel, and hears that Esau, whom he has not seen all this time, is nearby.
The night before, Jacob does not sleep, the depiction is on the left hand side of the picture as you look at it. Instead he wrestles all night long with a mysterious figure. It’s a very potent story, which Rembrandt did a famous painting of and Epstein sculpted a marble statue of which is in Tate Britain. No one wins. Jacob contended with God all night, and it was a draw! The day dawns. He asks to be blessed. He is renamed Israel – the one who contends with God. Jacob/Israel declares “I have seen the face of God and been preserved.” The icon of Jesus above the image of the wrestling makes this point. But he is also struck in the thigh. Wounded by this encounter, inevitably. The sun rises (the first time we hear of day break for 20 years), and Jacob limps into the new day. Then he meets his brother. The feared fraternal rancour has gone and, face to face, the brothers embrace and Jacob can barely cope. “Truly, to see your face, is to see the face of God” he says. The face of Jesus in the icon hangs over the image of the embrace in the icon connects the two stories.
In a talk an Old Testament scholar and Interfaith expert, Clare Amos gave to the WCC she cites this story as vital in grasping of the significance of struggling, wrestling for reconciliation. She also says the Book of Genesis has two connected themes that run throughout. First the key Theological truth that we are made in the image of God. Secondly that from the beginning there are splits which become pairings: night and day; land and sea; male and female. Yet creation is the expression of a God who is One: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God.
She says the task of humanity is to live as she says at the heart of this conundrum.
So the question the writer of Genesis is posing throughout the book is how can or should the one and the two relate to each other so that neither dominates or disappears? Both unity and duality are necessary. And it is our task …. as created beings to be part of the world of duality, in which ‘otherness’ is important and honoured, and yet also, because we are made in the image of God, to reflect also within ourselves the divine unity. We are if you like to be a sort of sacrament, showing through our human life, just what it means to be inc
There are a lot of brothers in Genesis. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his eleven others. All of these typify how opposites, splits, pairings of all sorts need the other, to complete the vision of God; so that with Jacob we can say, “Truly to see your face is to see the face of God.”
Jesus in today’s Gospel is in the Temple, as that extraordinary complex of buildings was celebrating its Dedication. In 168 BC, Antiochus, a Seleucid Greek invaded and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. He assumed the name Epiphanes, God made manifest. The trauma of what took place incited an almighty rebellion and a brief period of self-rule for the Jewish nation. Rededicating the Temple in December each year, the Feast of Hannukah, commemorated the triumph that period. Jesus is walking in Solomon’s portico, the ancient precincts of the Temple, which you see copies of in the order of service. I have said it before, but it bears repeating, that my abiding memory of our brief parish visit to Jerusalem in November 2015, at the tomb Princess Alice of Battenburg and Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia is of Anne, whose window we shall dedicate, looking at the dome of the Rock as the sun set. She was contemplating the Court of the Lord beneath her, which I am sure now she contemplates with even clearer vision.
How dreadful is this place is this place, it is none other than the House of God, the gate of heaven.
The central icon in the triptych is of the Transfiguration – the manifestation of the true glory, the seeing face to face by the disciples, by Moses and Elijah, of who Jesus was. John’s Gospel omits this account, every episode is the revelation of that glory, being seen face to face. Matthew, Mark and Luke have it at the centre of their narratives.
Jesus’ glory seen face to face is not confined to buildings, it is seen in one another. But these buildings, loved and cherished, retain the memory of those whom we love, by association, or memorial, and they help us to renew our glimpse of the gate of heaven.