My young catechumens and I were catechized by the story of Jacob last night, specifically, by his flight from Esau and his dream of the stairway to heaven. I pointed out what has long been one of my favorite aspects of this story, that the angels of God were ascending and descending upon the spot where Jacob slept. As they are ascending first, it is clear that they are already with him; and if the angels of God are with him, then the Lord God of Sabaoth Himself is with him, according to His Word and promise. In like manner, the Lord is with us here on earth, so that we shall be with Him in heaven forever. In particular, He is with us in the Person of the incarnate Son, Christ Jesus, upon whom the angels of God ascend and descend among us; in whom the heavens are opened to us (St. John 1:51). It is especially for His sake, the Seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, already present in the loins of His fathers, that the Lord blessed those sainted patriarchs and kept them on their way. Not only for their sake, but also for ours.
One of the most delightful thing about teaching Bible stories is the beautiful way in which they continue to catechize me, along with my catechumens. I've known and loved the story of Jacob since I was a little boy, and yet, I was called to repentance and strengthened in my faith by that same lovely story last night. Not only by what was refreshingly familiar, but by a couple of points I had never seen before.
For my entire life, I've been somewhat nonplused by the whole thing with Rebekah and Jacob pulling a fast one on Isaac, in order to get the blessing that he intended for Esau. What they do is clearly wrong, but, after all, God had said that the blessing would go to Jacob. In the past, I've always thought that, as it turned out, God actually worked through Rebekah's and Jacob's sins to get the job done. After last night, I don't believe that is the case at all. Whatever favoritism Isaac and Rebekah had for their boys, the blessing that God had promised to give unto Jacob was not Isaac's to give, nor Rebekah's to steal away from her husband by deception. What Isaac did have to bestow was his own paternal blessing, which he intended for his firstborn, Isaac. As it is, he spoke the truth concerning both of his sons; indeed, by faith he prophecied concerning them (Hebrews 11:20). But his blessing was of this earth: the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed, an abundance of grain and new wine; the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth (Genesis 27:27-28). It speaks of brothers and of nations, of masters and servants. Admittedly, that sure sounds like the promise that was spoken from the Lord concerning the sons of Isaac while they were yet in the womb of their mother Rebekah (Genesis 25:23). Consequently, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Esau, were indeed vying for those temporal blessings. But appearances are deceiving, especially when it comes to the blessing of Christ and His Cross.
So what happened then, after Jacob had deceived his father and tricked him and stolen away the blessing intended for Esau, and his mother warned her favored son to flee from the wrath of his brother? How had I never caught this before? "Isaac called Jacob and blessed him: 'May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May He also give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your Seed with you, that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham'" (Genesis 28:1-4). There it is. There is the blessing that the Lord had promised to Jacob. Not wrested away from the Patriarch Isaac by cunning trickery, but freely given and bestowed, even now to the lying and deceiving son who must flee from his home and family because of his guile.
The dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth will always be more attractive and appealing than the Cross of Christ, but the Lord accomplishes His purposes by the Cross nonetheless, and He does so for our good, in order to give us peace and rest. What Rebekah and Jacob achieved by their scheming was fear and separation and generations of conflict. The Lord's purposes are not accomplished by such conspiracies and their consequences, but neither are they thwarted. He speaks His Word and gives His blessing precisely there, in the midst of sin and death. He remains with Jacob and preserves his life, in mercy; not only because He loves Jacob, but because He loves us, for whom the Seed of Jacob would in time be crucified, dead and buried, who is risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, to the right hand of the God and Father.
It now seems particularly fitting to me, that Jacob lays down his head upon a rock in that certain place where he spent the night, when he had fled from his home and family. I always found that humorous, and so did my young catechumens last night. I mean, whoever heard of using a rock for a pillow? Pretty hard and uncomfortable, isn't it? But that is just exactly how it is with the blessing of God in Christ. The Son of Man has no place to lay His head, except upon the wood of the Cross and upon the rock of His borrowed tomb. It is upon that rock that Jacob is given rest. It is with his head upon that rock that God is with him, and all the holy angels, and the heavens are opened to him. It is hard and painful, unyielding; it bruises sore; it will not conform to him, but, for all of that, it gives him peace and rest in the presence of God.
We also are strangers and aliens, beleaguered by our sins and by their consequences, on the run from those who hate us (some without cause, and some with due provocation on our part). Yet, the Lord is with us, and He will never leave us nor forsake us; He is faithful, and He will do as He has spoken. Not one of His good promises shall fail to be accomplished for any of us. But it is all by the Cross of Christ. It is upon that hard rock that we lay our heads and He gives us rest.
Where His Cross is raised as a standard for the nations, and He Himself is lifted up by the preaching of the Gospel to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, there is the house of God; there is the gate of heaven. "Wide open stand the gates adorned with pearl," and all the angels of God, the cherubim and seraphim and all the host of heaven, ascend and descend upon those who are in Christ Jesus: crucified, dead and buried with Him through Baptism into His death, thus to rise and ascend with Him unto God. "Take, eat; this is My Body. Drink, this is My Blood." He gives to His disciples this food to eat; He clothes them with Himself, with the garments of His righteousness; and He brings them to the Father's House in safety.
It is all and always by the Cross. That is where I lay me down to sleep, "serenely as on pillows." It sounds funny to hear the story of a man who used a rock for such a pillow, but it is not so humorous when I am that man and the rock is a real hardship in my life under the Cross. There is the deadly temptation to despair, to suppose that my life itself shall be dashed against the rocks and destroyed. That is how it feels when I have nowhere else to lay me head. But the Rock that hurts and bruises, that crumbles mountains and topples kingdoms and crushes the sinner into dust, is the same Rock that was wounded for my transgressions and bruised for my iniquities, chastened for my well-being and scourged for my healing. Where that Rock is found, there the Lord God is with me, not to destroy me, but to grant me His Peace and Sabbath rest.