Divine Encounter

January 05, 2019

Twelfth Day of Christmas and Eve of the Epiphany

Happy Twelfth Night! As we approach tomorrow’s Feast of the Epiphany in which we remember the visit of the three wise men to the baby Jesus, I realized that this whole story could be boiled down into a 30-second homily with four simple lessons:

1) God shows up in unexpected circumstances – even this poor home in Bethlehem.

2) Those who truly believe in God will go to great lengths to encounter him – even traveling from the ends of the earth.

3) The love of God allows us to let go of things we previously held dear – not only gold, but any treasure.

4) The experience of God’s presence effects change in our lives – the wise men return home by a different route.

I do not claim that this list of lessons is exhaustive, but they do provide more than enough food for thought once we begin to think about how they may apply to the context of our own lives. Like many (all?) spiritual truths, they are simple to verbalize but could take a lifetime to internalize. Indeed, at this moment I cannot imagine my own spiritual journey moving beyond them.

These same lessons though remind me of a much older story from Genesis that hits me with much greater impact at this moment. I refer to the account of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, wrestling with the angel.

Families in the stories of Genesis were especially complicated, and completely dissimilar from anything that contemporary advocates of family values would promote. For example, Jacob had been living with his uncle Laban, who was also his father-in-law, since Jacob was married to two of Laban’s daughters (i.e., his first cousins). Jacob decided to take his family and leave Laban to return to the land of his own birth, but along the way he heard that his older brother Esau was pursuing him with an army, seeking revenge for Jacob’s previous theft of his birthright. Remember, not every action of a revered biblical figure is meant to be an example to follow.

By the time he caught up with Jacob, Esau had been softened up by gifts that Jacob had sent ahead of him, and the two brothers managed to have a happy reunion. Before that happened however, while Jacob was still unsure whether his strategy of appeasement would work, he sent his companions, family, and belongings ahead of him and passed the night alone in the desert. A disguised angel appeared, with whom Jacob wrestled for some unknown reason until the break of dawn. Even when the stranger injured Jacob’s hip, Jacob would not release him and demanded a blessing. Although Jacob was to walk the rest of his life limping from this injury, he received the blessing he sought, along with a new name, Israel. It may have been only at that point that he learned he had been wrestling with an angel the whole time.

1) God shows up in unexpected circumstances – his messenger was disguised as a stranger in the desert.

2) Those who truly believe in God will go to great lengths to encounter him – even struggling day and night for a blessing.

3) The love of God allows us to let go of things we previously held dear – in Jacob’s case, even the ability to walk smoothly.

4) The experience of God’s presence effects change in our lives – as indicated by the new name Jacob receives, signifying the blessing he had won.

This new year of 2019 excites me, but there are also ways in which it leaves me apprehensive. I fully expect it to be a year of great blessing, but I imagine that the joys God holds in store for me will also come at a cost I cannot fully anticipate. While I do not yet know in detail what my particular struggles may be this year, I do believe in God’s goodness and fidelity. My inevitable struggles and pains will not be in vain. I pray that yours will not be either.

Historically, Jacob has not been a focal point of my prayer and reflection. Aside from Jesus and Mary themselves, the biblical figures that most often draw my attention have been Moses and Abraham. This year though, I expect Jacob, with all of his sins and complicated past, to be a special patron saint for me. May I wrestle well, whatever that might mean.


This week’s “ear candy” and “brain food” both relate to unexpected revelation. Joan Osborne’s song (which many people associate with Alanis Morissette) asks about the possibility of God showing up where we don’t expect—through the normal people around us. Terrance Klein reflects on Michelangelo’s first Pietà sculpture that can be found in St. Peter’s Basilica, sharing both the surprising details that may confront an attentive observer and also the spiritual and human realities that the artwork brings to mind for him.

Ear Candy: “One of Us” by Joan Osborne

Brain Food: “What Michelangelo’s Flawed Pietà Teaches Us about Mary” by Terrance Klein

Come back next Saturday for a new post!