The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Choral Evensong      14th July 2019
I will not let you go, unless you bless me.
Ayla Lepine

(NB: This sermon was accompanied by an image of the sculpture 'Jacob and the Angel' by Jacob Epstein. More information available here. )

In the fiery destruction of the Second World War, the London entrepreneur Charles Stafford acquired a gigantic money-spinner. When he bought Jacob Epstein’s monumental alabaster sculpture, Jacob and the Angel, he immediately took it on tour, setting it up in a booth on Blackpool’s main promenade, with huge signs in bold lettering declaring ‘Epstein’s Latest Sensation!’ and ‘Adults Only!’. For just sixpence more, those enticed towards this hulking mass of two bodies locked in combat could also see what claimed to be a mermaid. ‘Not even a real one,’ observed a local article rather glumly, ‘just some poor girl with her legs tied inside of a sack.’ Epstein’s sculpture was part of an exploitative freakshow, designed to cheer people up, as bombs and the holocaust defined Europe’s life and countless deaths. 


In 1946 Stafford moved the sculpture down to Oxford Street, still recovering from the Blitz, so that it could join a parade of amusements and spectacles there in the heart of London. The sculpture was accompanied by a loud recorded voice asking, over and over again, ‘Do you think it is beautiful? Or do you think it is shocking?’ Stafford claimed that no less than hundreds of thousands of people had seen Epstein’s artwork. It made him rich. Epstein himself found the sculpture’s journey depressing and frustrating. Once he’d sold the work, he had no control over how it was displayed, and he lamented the ‘cheapjack and vulgar manner’ in which Stafford paraded this biblical artwork. By the 1960s, it was on loan to Liverpool Cathedral. In 1996, half a century after it caused an Oxford Street sensation, it arrived at the Tate gallery.


This description of the sculpture’s early life is a very different context from its home today, in the serene cool interior of Tate Britain, with plenty of quiet space around it. Whether the forms appeal to you as a response to the Genesis story or not, the experience of encountering this larger than life sculpture is impactful. The English alabaster is at once smooth and tense, as the veined stone’s translucent ribbons curve over the two bodies, one human, one divine. This sculpture asks a pressing question that commands close attention: who is Jacob? And what is he fighting against?


There is, first, a deceptively simple link between the name of the artist and the subject of the sculpture. It’s been interpreted as a way for Jacob Epstein to express his own struggle to make art. And then there’s the way Epstein treats the bodies themselves, carving their features. The angel is larger than Jacob, powerfully strong, and not aggressively violent but rather holding the limp and exhausted body of Jacob so that neither of their legs are stable, their heels suspended off the ground. The angel’s wings, giant stone slabs etched with light feathery markings that indicate the promise of flight, are mirrored in the symmetry of the angel’s fingers and thumbs, embracing the fleshy shoulders and upper back of Jacob’s broken body. The angel and the man are completely fused. The embrace is intimate.


Who is Jacob, really? The earlier section of Genesis 32 is full of fear and conflict. Esau and Jacob have a dysfunctional relationship, to put it mildly. Jonathan Sacks has suggested that throughout their story, from Jacob tricking his father into bestowing the blessing meant for Esau upon him instead, Jacob wants to be his brother Esau with a fierce desire going even beyond envy to the farthest reaches of self-destructive self-identification.


Jesus says, in our reading from Mark this evening, that it’s not what we eat that defiles us, but what’s in our hearts. What eats us, chews and gnaws, consumes us, is what we need to resist. The deepest parts of us, made by our Lord, are formed to love God, love one another, and love ourselves. Any activity that interrupts and rips chunks out of that will cause harm, internally and externally. Jacob, even with his land, power, promises, has no idea who he is, because he strives for all that Esau has, and seeks nothing more deeply than to defeat him. No wonder he’s afraid. He appears to have a plan, but he is lost. Alone, through the night, he fights an unknown man, wrestling a terrifying, divine being, who pushes him beyond his limits.


In his poem Carrion Comfort, Gerard Manley Hopkins picks up on the doubling intensity of the two figures wrapped up in each other. The voice of Jacob, in the crux of conflict, asks ‘Cheer whom, though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod / Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God. 


After the fight, Jacob is renamed and reconfigured. Cyril of Alexandria put it like this: ‘You see how he does not continue to fight at daybreak. There is no fight for those who already live in the light.’ Jacob becomes the founder of Israel, and the word ‘Israel’ is associated in this passage with the Hebrew word for ‘struggle’. The people will draw nearer to God than ever before. The people will be marked by struggle. The cost of seeing the Lord face to face is to be a people who contend with the deepest parts of themselves and dare to ask for a blessing. More than that – dare to demand a blessing, from the God who would wrestle with us when we need it, whether we know we need it or not. What a multi-dimensional irony, that when Jacob receives a new name, from God no less, when seeing God face to face, which defies comprehension, he becomes himself. When Jacob becomes Israel, he becomes, truly, for the first time, Jacob. Maybe he can finally love himself a little, as he limps away, physically out of joint, and spiritually, finally, whole. 


After the fight, Jacob’s attitude to his brother completely changes. His violence drains away. He comes not with his ego-fuelled obsession to become his brother, but with a new blessed nature in which he is finding out who he really is, indeed who he always was in the eyes and fierce love of God.


Who is Jacob? The wrong brother, the unlikely hero, the damaged wrestler, the one who dares to demand a blessing, and who receives it. The one who comes to know, eventually, that he fights on holy ground. The one who struggles, not knowing when or how the struggle will end.


Epstein’s sculpture alludes to this new self-awareness in the stone-hard, alabaster-smooth body that the unnamed angel lifts and tightly holds. Imagine Jacob’s left hand, fingers curled and limp, is not facing downwards but upwards, rotated 180 degrees. Does this frail body, weak from wrestling, not bless us as the angel of God finally blessed him? 

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