In our Sunday School class, we are telling Beauty’s story through a deep line-by-line dive into the Lord’s Prayer. If you look carefully at the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray, you might see it arcing into narrative form. There is character and setting, a problem and rising action. There is a climax and dénouement, and plenty of themes throughout. All of it culminating in to the most beautiful story about the most Beautiful One, who calls out to us to be a beautiful people, too.
And so last week we began:
Our Father in Heaven…
What did Jesus see as he stood on that Mount teaching his disciples to pray? As he said the words, “Our Father,” what images pressed themselves upon his mind? Why did it occur to him to address Israel’s ADONAI in this intimate, relational way?
We spent time at the beginning and end of class in visio divina, meditating on Rembrandt’s, Sacrifice of Isaac. In hindsight, it was maybe a severe choice for breaking everyone into a class on beauty. Rembrandt’s painting certainly falls into the category of beautiful in terms of its sweeping power of emotion and movement on canvas, as well as its technical excellence in line, dimension, color, detail, symmetry, balance, and design. The subject matter itself, however, seems anything but beautiful. A father in the terrible act of sacrificing his son—his promised son born to him in his old age, whom he loved—to some deity who decided to test his loyalty in this most terrible of ways.
That’s not beautiful.
Or so it seems.
Every time I look at Rembrandt’s painting, I am struck by its movement and its light. Isaac’s body is laid out across the piled wood he carried up the mountain on his back. His naked torso is open, his hands appear tied behind him. His legs are bent awkwardly into himself as if just a moment prior, he had been upright on his knees. His neck is being stretched long by his father’s hand; Abraham’s palm covering the entirety of Isaac’s face. His position is one of submissive repose. And his body is bathed in light.
As is Abraham’s deeply carved, wild-eyed face. As are both the angel’s smooth hands, one holding back the father’s outstretched arm at the wrist, the other lifted high overhead in halting proclamation.
These places of drenched light—the son’s body, the father’s face, the messenger’s steadying hands—make the shadowed areas of Abraham’s twisted form kneeling over his son while simultaneously raised back in striking readiness all the more ominous and dark. Which, in turn, gives more brightness to the light.
In his book, Rembrandt’s Eyes, Simon Schama writes this of Rembrandt’s influences and vision for Sacrifice of Isaac:
Rembrandt would have been as much aware as his Catholic predecessors (Caravaggio, Lastman, Rubens) that Christian tradition treated the sacrifice of Isaac as a prefiguration of the later blood offering by the Father of His Son: the Crucifixion…. But as always, the challenge Rembrandt set himself (and in this respect he was indeed truly the heir of both Caravaggio and Rubens) was not with abstruse confessional iconography. His work was to make sacred history credibly human. The test of a father commanded to kill the son of his old age had horrible seriousness in a Calvinist world where unquestioning obedience to the inscrutable plans of the Almighty was said over and over to be the mark of true faith. But Rembrandt’s passion here is paternal before it is Protestant. His own infant son had died. He needs no sermons on the necessity of yielding to God’s iron law. But he also wants to believe in God’s compassion and gives Abraham’s wrathful anguished face the look of a madman unexpectedly paroled from hell. (Schama, 410-411)
Several years ago, during his sophomore, my son, Isaac, noticed a large lump growing along the side of his neck. We assumed it was a swollen lymph node and so ignored it. The lump grew larger over time until by mid-summer it was startlingly large. We took Isaac to see an ENT specialist who concurred with us that it was likely a swollen node, but ordered a CT scan to be sure.
Then all haywire happened.
The CT scan report suggested cancer, several different kinds were presented: of the lymph system, of the nervous system…I don’t remember all of them, I just remember they were all horrible. Words like lymphoma and Duke Cancer Center swirled around my head. I kept batting at these words, punching into thin air. But I could not make them go away.
For two weeks we lived with the suffocating possibility of losing our son. I remember walking through those days and seeing everything with strange, dream-like vision. All around me was a desert mirage. It looked real—the late summer green on the trees, the grocery story aisles, the park where I continued to drop off Isaac for his cross country practice—but really it was all a hologram. Colorfully shaped vapor playing tricks on me, pretending all was right when I knew it wasn’t. I had no control here. My only choice was an offering; placing my son into the hands of the One I’d set my lot with long ago. I handed Isaac over—and kept handing him over–even as I wrapped my arms snug around his neck at night.
The “cancer” turned out to be swollen lymph nodes after all. We had them removed; they had grown so big they’d wrapped themselves around his carotid artery. Even in the relief of receiving my son’s life back, I still sat waiting for him in the recovery room grasping desperately at the threads of my tenuous faith. I begged God for his continued mercy, even while I prayed I would not disappoint him, knowing that he saw I was barely hanging on.
Moses, the author of Genesis, is sly in his wording, suggesting Abraham knew the Lord wouldn’t make him go through with sacrificing his son:
On the third day, Abraham raised his head and saw the place in the distance. Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. I and the boy will go there and worship and return to you.” (Genesis 22:4-5)
On the way up the mountain, with the wood upon his back, Isaac looks at his father and asks:
“My father?” [Abraham] answered, “Here I am, my son,” He said, “I see the fire and the wood, but where is he lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “God will provide himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” and they both went on together. (22:7-8)
I asked my husband the other evening what he saw when he looked at the Sacrifice of Isaac. “I don’t know if I saw anything in particular,” he said. “But what I thought about is how strange faith is. Even believing that God is good and he will provide, doesn’t make living out of faith any easier.”
Does it matter if Abraham knew whether or not God would provide the ram in the thicket? Does it make the actual walk of obedience any easier? Any less soaked with the choking sweat of follow through? Abraham’s work was to keep walking in obedience, keep letting go of what he had while also clinging to what he knew: he had a Friend who was also his God, One who made him laugh in his old age, who gave him this beloved son, who promised to make and then bless many nations from this beloved son’s life.
What did Jesus imagine as he uttered the Father’s name? What did he see as he stood on that Mount that day he taught his disciples how to pray? Did he see the light on Abraham’s face? Did he smell the father’s sweat-soaked robes?
Surely, he felt the weight of the wood on Isaac’s back, and the warmth of his Father’s hand covering his face, firm and protective, yet determined to not let go.