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Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Abraham

Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Abraham

A talk given at the Muslim Khoja Shia Ithna’ Ashari community event ‘The Momentous Sacrifice’ on Saturday the 26th of January 2013

The story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible comes as the culmination of a series of tests from God of Abraham’s faith. He has just sent his son, Ishmael, into the desert with Hagar, presumably to die. His wife, Sarah’s, jealously of this child and his mother, has been cause for strife in the household and she has demanded he be sent away. God commands Abraham to accede to Sarah’s wishes, and he then does so. Now he is left with one son, Isaac, the son on whom all the hopes of an elderly father and mother have pinned their future and the future of all they have worked for during their lives. And Abraham is told to sacrifice him. On the face of it, this is a story of God testing the faith of his beloved servant. But does God truly wish to see this son slaughtered? God wants to know the Love Abraham holds for God is greater than that which he holds for his own son. This appears to be the act of a jealous God, rather than a God of love, of generosity.

Christian scholars have likened this story as a foretelling of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. As Isaac was spared, and compassion shown for the sake of his father’s love, Jesus took upon himself that sacrifice that was removed from Isaac and his father Abraham. Jesus allowed himself to be sacrificed for the sake of others.

This concept is born of the ancient Jewish tradition of the Day of Atonement. During Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, a time of intense prayer and fasting, for seeking forgiveness of all the sins committed during the previous year, one goat was selected for slaughter, as atonement, and another sent out into the wilderness to carry away the sins of the people. Jesus is considered by some Christian scholars to be the sacrifice, given in atonement for the sins of the people, in place of Isaac who escaped slaughter. As Abraham placed the wood for the sacrificial fire on Isaac’s back to carry up the mountain, so the wood of the cross on which Jesus was crucified was placed on his back to carry up the Mount of Calvary.

Significant to this story is the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his beloved and innocent child for the sake of God’s love and promise. To the eyes of a literalist this is the demand of a brutal, jealous and cruel God, and if we leave the story there without probing further we cannot comprehend the God of Compassion, bringing a message of Love to humanity. But for Christian, who sees the Holy Spirit of God moving within the whole of creation, as moving within each and every one of us, the story of Abraham and Isaac holds a parallel with God the Father willing to give up the life of the human son for the sake of the Love of the whole of humanity, a God loving so much the children of his creation, a God willing to sacrifice all he loves for the sake of all he loves. And we have an obedient son, a son who knows the pain of sacrifice he must undergo, but is willing nonetheless to withstand that shame, to be bound, to be slaughtered, for the sake of the sins of us all. It is not that God demands the sacrifice of a beloved child to atone for our sins, but rather our jealous and bitter cry that God prove the depth of his love for us by painfully sacrificing that Love on the cross.

In the sins we commit every day, and we all commit sins great or small each day, we crucify that which we love in the depths of our hearts. We love truth, we love justice, we love kindness. Yet each time we use a hurtful word or glance, each time we walk past the hungry and the homeless, each time we neglect our own health or the health of the environment, each time we turn our backs on those nations, those communities, those homes, which suffer from violence and oppression, we are crucifying, we are slaughtering, our Beloved. And each time we take on the pain of others, each time we stand up for justice and are beaten down, each time the courageous and innocent give their lives for another, each and every one of us take on ourselves a little something of the sacrifice of Christ. Father and Son are bound together in a dance of Love.

There is a riddle which asks how one can hold onto Love. And the answer is that you cannot hold Love, you cannot keep it for yourself or protect it or cage it. The only way you can hold onto Love is to set it free. Perhaps this story of the binding of Isaac on the pyre of sacrifice is a metaphor for the ways in which we seek to bind up that which we Love to our own purpose, and in doing so we kill, we slaughter, we destroy the object of our affections. But when we release that desire to bind, to control, or even destroy lest others get their hands on it, when we let go, and that process of letting go can be painful, God provides. Just as God provided a ram for Abraham to slaughter instead of his son, God provides. God’s Holy Spirit keeps that Love hovering over us as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovered over Jesus when he was baptised in the river Jordan. In releasing the bonds of control, we release our own souls from their bondage.

Those of us who have lived to mature years will have gone through times when it seems all is lost, as if everything we have ever worked for has come to nought, times of despair and loss of hope, and in the midst of those darkest moments can come the shining, calm instant of letting go, of handing all over to God, the light of holiness shines its penumbral, warm glow in our lives. In that moment, everything is the same and everything is transformed – we know everything we ever hoped for is realised when we have let go. This is the true message of sacrifice, that it is never about losing all we have. It is not about cruelty or jealousy or brutality. It is a saving Grace that seeks to show us the life beyond death.

I’d like to end with a short piece On Joy and Sorrow by Khalil Gibran

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the self-same well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.