Jacob knew something of the God of his father Isaac and of his grandfather Abraham. But he hadn’t yet made a commitment to Him. As is often the case with us, he waited until he was in desperate need. He was fleeing for his life because his brother Esau wanted to kill him for stealing his blessing from their father Isaac. On the way, he stopped at a certain place to spend the night out in the open, and he had a vision from God.
This was the well-known vision of “Jacob’s ladder,” on which he saw angels ascending and descending from heaven. Then the Lord promised him land and an abundance of descendants, and the most important part of the promise was this: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you” (Gen. 28:15).
Then Jacob uttered his famous exclamation: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God [so he named it Beth-el] and the gate of heaven!” Then he could make his commitment: “the Lord shall be my God.”
It has perhaps happened to you on some occasion that you unexpectedly discovered the presence of the Lord in a certain place or through a certain experience. The Lord was there but you did not know it—until He revealed Himself in one way or another.
We pray in the Byzantine Liturgy that the Lord is “everywhere present and filling all things,” so we really have no excuse not to know that the Lord is in any given place. We don’t think He is because we have not yet discovered Him in “all things.” But He would have us know that the Father is to be worshiped in Spirit and Truth, and not merely in this place or that, so any place can become a spiritual temple in which God dwells. We have to cultivate the awareness that “the Lord is in this place” wherever we happen to be—unless it is such a place from which the Lord has been barred by the manifest rejection of evildoers, in which case we shouldn’t be there in the first place.
This passage from Genesis is one of the common readings for Vespers of the feasts of the Mother of God, for she is pre-eminently the ladder connecting earth to heaven, the house of God and the gate of heaven. The Lord is always wherever she is, so we know that if we are close to her, the Lord is always with us. As He said in his blessing to Jacob, He will keep us wherever we go, and will be with us up unto the complete fulfillment of his will in us.
So let us, through prayer and silent listening, become aware of the presence of the Lord and renew our commitment to Him. The Lord shall be always with us, for He has chosen a woman to be the Gate of Heaven by giving flesh to the Son of God who, as one of us, has thrown in his lot with us. The Lord is in this place because He loves us: “Here have I chosen to dwell” (Psalm 131/132).