Fight Sunday by Ava Ploeckelman
“That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
Genesis 32: 22-26
I wrestle with God, but only part time. I’ve got a deal with the church. When it’s Genesis time on the Church calendar, Pastor Mickey calls me from his Nokia. We talk a little bit about how I’ve been doing and if I’ve been keeping up with my faith. I’ve been in and out of a faith crisis for a while now, but he has made it clear he isn’t my Pastor. He tells me to keep my faith personal. When we quit talking circles, he asks me if I’ll be available on the third Sunday of the month.
The congregation spends the entire month in anticipation. People that normally don’t come to service often come the Sunday before the fight, so it doesn’t seem like that’s the only reason they attend. Bible Study the week before is replaced with time to make posters, t-shirts, and buttons. They all have a photo of my face on them, next to a painting of God, since the fighter who plays him changes each year.
On the day of the fight, I watch the congregation from the balcony where the organist is usually situated. Since no one comes up here, it is a mess. There are diet coke cans and lollipop wrappers everywhere. It is a miracle that nothing has fallen into the congregation mid-service yet.
The congregation has slid their posters under the pews; the only way you can tell it is Fight Sunday is the t-shirts they decided to wear throughout the morning. Some of the older women find it out of tradition to wear them through the whole service, so they slide them over their Sunday blouses, right before it starts, careful not to smudge their makeup or crush their hair sprayed curls
First comes the reading. Pastor Mickey narrates the original verse from behind the altar, which isn’t very long, but I still see children shifting in their seats and adults fidgeting with their dress clothes. A few old men are tapping their canes against the wood floor anxiously. After Pastor closes the Bible and puts it away, the youth group pulls the altar away and pushes in the ring. They wear matching red and blue t-shirts where the negative space Jesus looks more like Kurt Cobain or Tony Stark. When they finish, they stand, leaning on one foot or the other. The only adult in a matching shirt, who must be their youth leader, nods them off stage.
Then the congregation crowds around the ring, which a little shorter than one on television would be. Pastor says it allows people to be closer to God. They have to be told by a few volunteers not the lean on the gold and white ropes, and to leave space for my grand entrance.
As I make my way down to the floor, I can hear them testing out the microphone. The congregation can get pretty rowdy, so this year they bought a bigger stereo system with the offering plate donations. Pastor Mickey used to be a sports announcer so he provides the commentary. As I wrap my hands, I hear him tell the crowd to be careful. A couple years ago, we added fake blood to the fight. Afterwards, the youth group discovered that in the frenzy, the congregation had broken a few pews and chairs. It was okay because they were able to replace them with the money they made off of the Jacob vs. God merch.
The lights usually aimed at the art work and stained glass windows are redirected to the ring. This is my cue, and a metal remix of Amazing Grace carries my walk to the center. I don’t have a mic, so I have to wait for the crowd to stop screaming before I can start speaking. Even though they just hear the verse, I give context. I recite a speech, worded to sound like the Bible, about how I was alone on one side of the river, and about to cross.
The whole thing has a lot more drama than the original story. Pastor Mickey likes that; he says it connects the younger people to the scripture.
God appears to a recording of the choir singing Hallelujah over and over again. It gives a very cinematic effect, which carries through as we start to circle each other. The beginning is very important, we have to start fighting at the same time. God can’t attack somebody out of nowhere, but Jacob doesn’t attack God in the verse. I haven’t met this version of God yet, so I hope he understands when I nod.
He does, and I can hear the crowd cheer as we grab each other and start trying our throws. God feels stronger this year, but I’ve been practicing, so we are evenly matched. If I was practicing, this would be alright. This is a performance, though, and no one wants to watch an evenly matched fight. So I look at God and whisper, “I. go.
down.” I let him lift me above his shoulders and spin me around. From up there, I notice the congregation leaning forward. For a second I can see a old woman pull out her reading glasses to get a better look.
When God throws me down, I hit the floor of the ring with my hands to make a louder sound. The first year I did that, it made a few people cringe, but now it is part of the routine. I stand up again, and it is too early in the fight to act tired, so I I run back towards God and tackle him. I get him in an armbar, lying perpendicular to him, legs over his chest and on either side of his arms. I catch a glimpse of a Southern Cross tattoo on his ribs that I’m not sure God is supposed to have. He fights his way out of my grip; my hands have become slick with the incensed oil he was thoroughly anointed with before the match.
We start playing around on the ropes, leaning into the elastic and shooting back out again, slamming into each other. Each time we intersect, the congregation cheers louder. At one point, God slams into the ropes three times while, over the speakers, Pastor chants, “In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit,” I climb up on the ropes, leaning over them and riling up the congregation a bit. They try to tell me that God is sneaking up behind me, but I pretend I can’t hear them. He comes from behind me and puts me in a chokehold. This feels like routine, but I try to look panicked. I send my elbow back a couple of times, to loosen his grip and I send him flying, up and over me, and straight back down onto the mat. We go back and forth with throws for a few minutes, but not too long. The congregation gets bored easily.
As a build up to the grand finale, we do a section with chairs. We run into the audience and take one of their seats to use in the ring. I get the idea that maybe we could try something with a whole pew next year, really bring it up a notch. When he isn’t looking, I hit God right across the back with a rusting grey fold up chair. Later on, he slams my chin against the seat back. Through the lights, I can see the congregation cringing, but no one looks away, not even the kids in Sunday clothes on their father’s shoulders for a better view.
It’s time to bring out the fake blood now, right before the end. We start to get into more a boxing thing now, but the audience doesn’t seem bothered by the genre change. God, as it turns out, likes tight jabs and crosses, and he’s moves his feet in quick, sharp, movements, dancing around me. The fake blood starts pouring from where we have hidden it. I look down for a moment, catching fake blood drip off his glove in the light of the candles. I can tell its fake because it's got a similar viscosity to pancake syrup, and I wonder if anyone in the congregation actually believes it. It’s my mistake to stare, and God catches me straight in the face. He charges me, pushing me into the ground. This is the end. He makes a dramatic motion that’s supposed to look like he’s dislocating my hip, and I make a cracking sound with my hands. The congregation gasps at the sound, but they knew it was coming.
For the finish, God gives Jacob the name Israel, which means to contend with God. Then, he vanishes in the hiss of a smoke machine that has been loaded with incense. I limp off stage and back to the stairwell, with nothing to fill the silence. When I am out of sight, Pastor wishes people a good Sunday and reminds them about Wednesday Bible study, which is back to normal this week. The congregation leaves after echoing their favorite moments. Kids and adults alike are pretending to crash into each other. I can hear some of the younger ones arguing about who is Jacob and who is God in their re-enactments.
I watch them from balcony above, unseen, so I don’t ruin the illusion. When the room is finally empty, the booklets, beads, buttons, and prayer books they’ve left behind are bright against the marble floors. A few glow sticks illuminate the corners. The youth group fills the space, gravel grumbling about being tasked with clean up. As I help clean, I notice I don’t see my opponent again. This happens every year. I fight God and never see him again.