Faithful friends of Magnificat are invited to read the story of Jacob’s struggle with the angel (Gn 32:23-31) as an allegory of their prayer life. Is it not similar to a battle of faith, crowned by the victory of perseverance? Yes, at times in our prayer we are like Jacob in his quest for God in the depths of the dark night, in his fight to know God’s true name and to contemplate his true face, in Jacob’s vigor and resolve to ask for God’s blessing and a new name for rebirth…
Outside the realm of the spiritual life, this combat proves difficult to interpret. “A strange adventure,” writes Elie Wiesel, “mysterious from beginning to end, breathtakingly beautiful, intense to the point of making one doubt one’s senses. Who has not been fascinated by it?” Moderns see it as a universal symbol of the internal struggle “against all that hinders the creative fulfillment of a being: darkness, chaos, and the forces of evil.” And, indeed, is not the victory over self the most necessary victory of all? Deeply Catholic, Baudelaire saw in this battle “a fight between natural and supernatural man, each according to his nature.” Lamartine, inspired by the struggle between the muse and her chosen one, gives a glimpse into the great mystery:
Finally, from the dark hours/ When evening battles with shadows,/ At times vanquished, at times victorious,/ Against this unknown rival/ he fought till dawn…./ And it was the spirit of the Lord!
Here Rembrandt chooses not to represent a particular episode in the combat, but to focus directly on the eschatological issue at stake: it is at the outcome of a decisive trial, a baptism, that one receives the grace of God. Through the strength and persistence of his faith, Jacob emerges victorious and blessed in this struggle. But contemplation of this masterpiece, particularly the placid beauty of the angel, unveils an even greater mystery: in his purple tunic, Jacob appears as the figure of the One who, conceived and begotten in the bosom of God as his eternal Wisdom, wholly deigned to be born and ever remain the son of man. Yet here, at the break of dawn, this true God, rendered handicapped—and what a handicap for a God to be mortal!—prevails over the almighty God, wresting from him, in a hand-to-hand Eucharistic battle, the perpetual blessing that revokes the original curse weighing upon humanity.