Let's look first at the circumstances of this story. Jacob and Esau were the children of Rebecca and Isaac who was the son of Abraham and Sarah. Jacob was the younger twin who purchased (Genesis 25:27-34) and then, with the help of his mother, deceitfully gained his father's blessing which rightfully belonged to his first-born brother, Esau (Genesis 27).
After he had gained Esau's birthright, Jacob left home for he feared Esau who was angry with him but also because his father told him to go and take a wife from his mother's relatives rather than marry a foreigner, a Caananite woman.
As recounted in Genesis 28, as Jacob was fleeing and night fell, he stopped and slept, using a stone for a pillow. It was here he had a dream about the ladder from earth to heaven with angels descending and ascending. God appeared to him, promising all that he had promised to Abraham: the land, numerous offspring, blessings which would flow through him to all the families of the earth. God also promised to be with Jacob and to bring him back to this land.
Jacob waking, said: "Surely, God is in this place. This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven" (Genesis 28:16-17). He named the place Bethel meaning house of El (God). He then set up the stone as a pillar and consecrated it with oil, saying: "this stone that I have set up for a pillar shall be God's house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you" (Genesis 28:22).
The ladder appeared in a dream so it obviously was not a flight of stairs to heaven. What was it then? It was a symbol of the connection between earth and heaven. This was similar to the temple tower at Babylon which was called house of the bond of heaven and earth.
Angels in Scripture are God's messengers carrying out God's will on earth as we see often in both the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, the angels here would be symbolic of the deliverance of God's promises to Jacob.
Jacob is an important figure in the Hebrew Scriptures. His 12 sons are the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Hosea (12:2-4, 12) identifies Jacob with the people Israel. We see in Jacob's deceit to gain the birthright and his struggle with the angel signs of God's displeasure. But as Jacob finds God's forgiveness and blessing, so too can Israel.
Jesus is Jacob's ladder
In John's Gospel, Jesus used this symbolism to show himself as mediator between heaven and earth "you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (1:51). Therefore, Jesus is our Jacob's ladder.
So, Jacob's ladder is for us a sign and symbol of the presence of the holy within our midst. Our lives are very connected to God through our creation and especially through Jesus' incarnation. God never gives up on us nor abandons us, in spite of our weaknesses and sinfulness.
Jesus opened the gates of heaven for us by his death and resurrection. But not satisfied with this, the night before he died, he gave himself to us as food and drink to sustain us on our journey. Then he sent the Holy Spirit to enlighten our path and give us strength to carry our burdens. He continues to draw us to him by his love and forgiveness. Jesus is truly our ladder to God and heavenly home.
We know and accept all this but how do we respond to these initiatives of God? That is what counts. When we receive Jesus in the bread of life, what do we bring? We know (or do we?) what he is giving us but what do we offer him? How are our daily lives changed by the life and grace God gives us through Jesus? Or do we fail to recognize Jesus in our lives like the disciples on the road to Emmaus?
Jesus told his disciples: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news" Mark 16:15). To us too, Jesus says: Go, care for all those in need, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, house the homeless, console the suffering; Go strive each day to see the risen Christ in all those with whom you work and live; Go with enthusiasm and joy to do my work in the world; Go and live in my peace and joy. Jesus' parting gift to his disciples can be ours too: "that my joy might be in you and your joy may be complete" (John 15:11) and "no one can take your joy away from you (John 16:22).