Jacob, one of the most famous biblical characters in one of the most famous biblical scenes, wrestles with God (Genesis 32). It is a game-changer and a name-changer in his life. His opponent appears as a stranger in the darkness of night. The stranger, we’re initially told, is a messenger of God in human form; though it is possible that it is, at the same time, the devil. Earlier in the story (Genesis 28) Jacob had a dream in which ladders connect the earthen plane with that of heaven and of the underworld whereby angels and demons ascend and descend the ladders to interact with, and try to influence, his human spirit.
Throughout the night, he contends with good and evil spirits not realizing, for certain, until the first hint of dawn that God is at the center of the wrestling match. Wrestling can be playful but it is also a struggle for dominance. Among sports, it is the most intimate in the sense that opponents experience each other’s body (muscles, moves, impulses, breath…) even more than they do their own. It is a good image for our intimacy with God and His goodness as well as the devil’s evil intentions for us. Most of us are very tuned in to the idea that good and evil are continuously wrestling internally for possession of our souls.
Some theologians believe that God and the devil are the same—or perhaps better put, they are opposing dimensions of the same entity—like the head and tail of the same coin. We can’t comprehend heads without an understanding of tails, much as we can’t comprehend darkness without having the experience of light. Darkness is merely light in the absence of itself. Similarly, tails is only heads in its own nonappearance, much as evil is goodness in its own nonexistence. The man who wrestles with Jacob, like the one who contends with us, is probably a compilation of good and evil spirits ascending and descending from other dimensions.
Catholics hold that God is head of the church but, as we have come to realize in stunning ways recently, the church also has a tail that is of the devil. Pope Francis has warned us of demons that exist within the church, starting inside the Vatican. He was elected to deal with those demons and has asked us, as people of God, to pray that these gremlins be expelled. He has suggested the rosary and prayers of divine mercy. Such prayers can help us as individuals to discern the good and evil spirits that are vying for control and help us as a worldwide community of faith to overcome the contentious bad spirits that roam the earth seeking the ruin of souls.
“Jacob” means “holder of the heel.” He was the second born of twins. It was as if he and his brother, Esau, were wrestling inside the womb of Rebekah, their mother. By his role as first born, Esau was given a birthright that Jacob desired. Jacob was a devilish child who, in sneaky, cunning, underhanded ways, twice tricked his brother out of his birthright. His much later wrestling match with God and demons occurred on the night before he was to meet his brother, after many years of separation, to apologize. After wrestling through the dark night and after Jacob matured from a deceptive life to one of integrity, God gave him a new name, “Israel,” which means “God prevails.” As good overcame evil, Jacob became the father of twelve sons for whom the Twelve Tribes of Israel are named and the Twelve Apostles succeed. They, too, went on to wrestle with plenty of demons in ancient Israel or in the founding of the church. Bishops are successors of the Apostles and they now, also, are wrestling with good and evil spirits. Through our prayers, we are to remind the world that God prevails and directs us toward salvation.
Just as Jacob discovered that good and evil spirits are real and just as we, like him and other holy men and women, discern spirits within us and around us so that we can walk in divine light, let us realize, too, that as we and the world wrestle with our own angels and demons, good overcomes evil. God will prevail.