The bible is sometimes called the greatest love story ever told. But the word love is not used in the story of creation, or the flood, or any other story until this story today – often regarded as one of the finest examples of a short story in all or Western literature. In 19 short verses, the reader is taken on a terrible and shocking journey along with Abraham and Isaac – your only son, the son that you love (in case Abraham has forgotten who Isaac is?) – for three days until they reach the mountain of Moriah (which 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us would become the temple mount in Jerusalem). Although the reader knows that this is a test for Abraham, he is not in on that little secret; so we can only wonder how he endured these three days while he would have been beside himself in grief as he walked along with Isaac, prepared camps, ate meals together and shared stories around a camp-fire – and yet pretended that nothing was amiss in this horrible pilgrimage.
The lectionary reading skips over some of the details, so it is well worth reading the full passage to see all the details – and especially the poignant exchange between Isaac – now carrying the wood that would be used to burn the sacrifice and his father, as in innocence Isaac looks up at his father and asks the powerful question: ‘here is the flint/fire and the wood – but where is the lamb of sacrifice?’ With the faith and obedient trust that has become Abraham’s greatest mark and honour, he answers with powerful prophetic insight: ‘The Lord himself, will provide the lamb – my son.’ We are left to wonder whether ‘the son’ is meant to be ironic – a hint from Abraham to Isaac of the darker purposes that he is being forced to embark upon. When they reach the summit of the mountain, there Abraham binds his son – an act that provides the title for this sacrifice – the Akedah of Isaac (or in Hebrew, Akeidat Yitzchak). We are not told how old Isaac is at this point – at the end of Genesis 21 we are simply told that ‘a long time passed’ so Isaac could be a youngish boy (yet old enough to carry a pile of branches), or a young man. Whatever his age, it seems that Isaac, who now knows that he is to be the lamb of sacrifice, allows himself to be bound and so offered to the Lord. He also seems to be the stronger one in the pair – since he is the one assigned to carry the wood for the fire of sacrifice.
It is only after Isaac, now bound, and placed upon the newly constructed altar, and as Abraham – presumably racked in grief and tears – reaches out with the knife to lunge it into the neck of his beloved son. As he begins to bring the knife down, it is then that the angel of the Lord intervenes to prevent this heinous crime of human sacrifice from taking place. Then we are informed that a short distance away, a ram is caught up in the bushes, and so is available to take the place of Isaac and be sacrificed. Note it is a ram – not the lamb that Abraham prophesied. After this passage, any careful reader of scripture should be looking for this lamb – when will God come through and answer this promise? When will God finally provide the lamb of sacrifice?
+Father, in this strange and moving story, you invite us to reflect deeply on the sacrifice of your only son, the son that you love. Help us to be deeply grateful for all that you have done for us through the death of Jesus, the lamb of God. Amen.
The Vigil Mass was (mostly) recorded by video, so a video of the message is available here; the evening Mass was very hot and humid – hence the fact I am only wearing a stole.