…did you hear this Sunday’s readings?! They were amazing! Sunday was one of those days that such impactful, powerful readings with such powerful images that I was confused about which image to use first! The image of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, which is an incredibly powerful scene that has been expressed many times in art… or the Transformation?
So! We’ll use the Sacrifice of Isaac today, since it happened first, after all, and then move onto the Transfiguration (with some commentary on how it relates to Lent) tomorrow! (Though, if you want to see a cool artwork of the Transfiguration today, here’s a really cool artwork of the Transfiguration from Peru that I featured a while ago!)
Anyway! The first reading that was read to us at church yesterday was a condensed version! That is, it contained all the important parts to the story, so you shouldn’t worry about it not containing the message of scripture, however there were some lines of extraneous detail that were taken out to streamline the story for oral retelling. So! Because some of those extraneous details are interesting, here is the non-condensed version!
1Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test and said to him: Abraham! “Here I am!” he replied. 2Then God said: Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you. 3Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac, and after cutting the wood for the burnt offering, set out for the place of which God had told him.4On the third day Abraham caught sight of the place from a distance. 5Abraham said to his servants: “Stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over there. We will worship and then come back to you.” 6So Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two walked on together, 7Isaac spoke to his father Abraham. “Father!” he said. “Here I am,” he replied. Isaac continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” 8“My son,” Abraham answered, “God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” Then the two walked on together.9When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Next he bound his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar. 10Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” “Here I am,” he answered. 12“Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the angel. “Do not do the least thing to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold from me your son, your only one.” 13Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14Abraham named that place Yahweh-yireh; hence people today say, “On the mountain the LORD will provide.”15 A second time the angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven 16 and said: “I swear by my very self—oracle of the LORD—that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your son, your only one, 17I will bless you and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants will take possession of the gates of their enemies, 18and in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.”
Like I said… a dramatic scene, right?
I think Rembrandt captures the drama of the scene beautifully:
In the artwork, the angel grabs Abraham’s wrist so hard that he lets go of his knife and seems surprised. The expression of both the angel and Abraham are interesting also — it almost looks as if Abraham is surprised by the change of events — though, probably happily so, as he seems a bit green in his face in this picture!
But the more interesting figure is Isaac. Abraham has covered Isaac’s face, thus not giving us any insight as to how Isaac might be feeling at this moment as he lays prostrate on a pile of wood that he helped to gather, waiting for his throat to be slit and him to be offered as sacrifice.
But, because the face is covered, it makes him almost seem to be an anonymous person, which reminds me almost of a contemporary (non-religious) work, The Son of Man, by René Magritte, in which a man in a suit stands with an apple in front of his face. The artist of that work said about the hidden face, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”
And this is kind of the sensation that we feel when we look at this art. Who is that man underneath the hand? The only things about Isaac that we see are his body, with white rags around his pelvis, his abdomen vulnerably stretched out, and his legs curled underneath him. And, in the way that he is dressed and the vulnerable way he is splayed out for us to see, this artwork seems to call to mind Christ as He is sprawled out on the cross.
Which, in a way, is remarkably appropriate. After all, as St. Augustine wisely said about reading the bible, “The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed.” The sacrifice of the son is something that is alluded to in the Old Testament… but it is the New Testament that it finally comes to pass in the form of Jesus Christ.
Thank You for submitting to being our sacrifice so that we may be saved.