Reflections on the Sacrifice of Issac

In time for Holy Week, a reflection on the Old Testament story, the Sacrifice of Issac, inspired by Meditations on Vatican Art, Mark Haydu.

Sacrifice of Isaac, Attributed to Ludovico Carracci, 1555-1619, Vatican Museums

I have never really reflected on the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me.” Reading Strange Gods, by Elizabeth Scalia, has opened my awareness of how this commandment, and the breaking of this commandment is part of every moment of our lives, since the worship of God (pray without ceasing) is part of every moment of our lives.

I’ll bet that, if you are a Christian, no matter how faithful you are there are Bible stories that perplex you. This morning I attempted to pray using Meditations on Vatican Art by Mark Haydu. Today’s meditation focused on The Sacrifice of Issac by Carracci. This is the story that I continue to approach with confusion. I could accept it with faith, but it never fully made sense.

Here the pieces came together. Inspired by Greydanus’ review and reflections on the controversial movie Noah, I came to a appreciate in a deeper way the development of our understanding of God. God revealed himself gradually to the Israelite people. Noah, as portrayed in the movie, did not always understand God and how to carry out his will. But he was righteous in that he did all he could to fulfill God’s will, even if it is was a mistaken interpretation.

God asks Abraham to show he will not put his progeny before God. What are all one’s accumulations, in this time and culture, if you cannot pass it on through an inheritance? Abraham is nothing without a proper heir, yet God asks Abraham to show that God has primacy in his life. Is he willing to sacrifice his only son, his own hope for a future, a possible idol? Perhaps it is an idol of self because it would be the carrying on his glory into a next generation.

Second, perhaps God asks Abraham to sacrifice the idol of prosperity. But not prosperity in the sense of accumulated things, rather the idol that we make of God when we look to God to be our personal candy machine. I will love you if you give me this, if you provide for me the things I believe I need to have. This is a strong American ethic, if I understand correctly, a common Protestant ethic (I’m not an expert on that) and comes from a strong Jewish ethic. That devotion will be rewarded, in some measure, in this life. God asks Abraham to cut that away and be faithful to God as God, not the God who gave him all he ever wanted. Will he love God when even that is stripped away? The same question was put to Job.

But God is faithful to himself. God never changes even though he reveals himself gradually to us. Isn’t it common, when we first experience conversion, giving our heart to Christ, to have an overwhelming sense of joy? It is only later when the spiritual honeymoon has settled that we encounter the cross again, strengthened by what God gave us. Even though he did shower joy in this life on us, that is a gradual revelation of his constant goodness. He never was the candy store even though we might have interpreted it that way.

So even though God asks Abraham to kill his only son, he stops him. God does not want parents to kill their children. He stays Abraham’s hand, though the word of an angel. He put Abraham to the test.

We will be put to the test. Our children will stray. Are we willing to face God as the one true God, putting aside idols we may have accumulated in our chapel? Facing God with empty hands, will we remember our children are “on loan”? What a terrible place that is, to have to learn that lesson, and we must learn it again and again. Every parent faces this cross, gradually or acutely.

God wants us to do all we can to protect our children. Yet, the reminder that “God works all things for those who love him” reminds me that he will take the terrible situations we face as parents as opportunities to affirm our devotion to God and that we should have no strange gods before him.

Reflections from Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life

It isn’t often an introduction keeps you thinking. Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, written by Elizabeth Scalia, is a wake-up call to our way of life. She wastes no time. The introduction sets the stage and opens up the reader’s understanding that those passions and pursuits of our life, on dangerous ground, dancing a dangerous line which can tip the scale into idolatry.

She sets the stage then spends the book helping us to unmask those idols.

First, ease us into understanding:

“Idols are not like opinions or even convictions. They don’t ask for consensus or even strong advocacy—they demand worshippers.”

“If God created humankind in his image, we humans tend to create gods in our own image—or perhaps more correctly, we humans create gods so reflective and shiny, they keep us looking at ourselves.”

I have read about this before. The sin of Adam and Eve was not that they ate an apple, but rather that, having heard the commandment of God, they decided for themselves what would be good. This is how they would be like gods. Scalia rightly points out that when the modern Christian-mind thinks of idolatry, we think of golden calves and silly looking orgies from Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments. It is a concept so far removed that it becomes easy to gloss over the commandment. Of course we would not worship another god. That commandment must reference some other culture where that might be more likely to happen.

Recognizing where we’re at, Scalia leads us another step in understanding:

“We stop and think of what it means to have something “before God”? It means to put something “first,” yes, but more fundamentally, it means to put something “in front” of God, as one might put a screen in front of a fireplace and therefore place it “before” the fire…it stands before God and us; it separates us from him.”

What is an idol in every day life?

St. Gregory of Nyssa said “ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” “I’ve come to believe that an idol is an idea, fleshed out or formed by craftiness and a certain needy self-centeredness.”

An idol is an idea, fleshed out. It takes on a life of its own. Her definition will help us identify them in our own lives. They will be creative, deep, well-formed and multi-faceted. They will reflect a need we have, a need projected outward but points inward to ourselves.

A pretty weighty introduction indeed.

To carry her introduction, Scalia related the story of an incident she witnessed in an online forum where Scalia saw unfold a love of security that seemed somewhat deeper and close-minded than it ought to be. She looked deeper into the words of those on the forum. Could this be a form of idolatry?

“Rather, I decided, it was the anxiety beneath it—lying coiled like a snake under the mist—that the America they had known might be over. It was in service to this strange god of anxiety—which hissed of threats to everything familiar, sure, and safe, and played to naturally protective instincts—that our rural friend was chased away.”

A god of anxiety? My reflection becomes personal.

Coming from one direction to my thoughts: I have struggled with anxiety. The struggle continues. It is an ongoing effort to maintain a calm so I will not get too near the edge.

Coming from another direction: I am alarmed by the atrocities committed by ISIS. I’ve written on that only once, in “The Christian Mission“, but it stays in my thoughts and prayers. My husband and I watched the The Pianist. The parallels of what I imagine the innocent suffering at the hand of ISIS and what the Nazi’s did in Poland and other counties were undeniable. ISIS is moving and their goal is to destroy Christendom. They have stated goals to attack the US, the President, destroy Rome and Pope Francis. Is the world as I know it being destroyed? Do my children face a radically different future in the US, in the Catholic Church, without the security I have known all my life?

The feelings Scalia describes following 9/11 reflect my current fears. Fifteen years ago, I was a teenager when the towers were struck. I mourned the loss of countrymen, but living in California, was so distant that my world was not shaken, only my heart. I am older now and better see the bigger picture, and with that comes questions.

Coming from, yet another direction: the four-year old son of a family we hold dear to our hearts died last week. His funeral was yesterday. As I reflect on the pain of my friend, I think to myself how we never have the hold on our children we imagine we have. She may have understood it better than I, as he was born with a heart condition. Perhaps she daily made the prayer to God offering her son to his protection and love. I am the one under an illusion that these children are mine. In trust, they can be snatched away in an instant. I had to learn this when I miscarried, but in the economic, environmental and philosophy stability I wonder if I have grown complacent.

I am pondering all these things. Scalia’s words act as a scale by which I can weigh them. Do I put my fears before God? Have I offered them to God, essentially putting them behind him so I see only him? Can I come to place of trust, a willingness to endure the storm should the storm arise, from whatever direction? Or do I make a god of my fear, willing to sacrifice to its appetite, willing to organize my life around its worship?

I will trust. As Lent evolves, my health improves and I can think productively again. I have begun praying through the meditations and art provided in Mark Haydu‘s beautiful work, Meditations on Vatican Art. Day 1’s meditation on St. Helena, dressed in fine robes, pondering a vision of the Cross, reminds me that holiness is possible in stability, I can trust God even though we do not suffer as we did when we were un- or under-employed. What are my treasures?

Thirty minutes into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the man says he lost everything. He has a son with him. It does not seem to me that he lost everything if his son is still with him.

Let me always remember where my treasure is. Let me find my security in God.

And all this from only the introduction.