April 19, 2013

The Self Sacrifice of Isaac

The sacrifice or binding of Isaac (Akedah) is today’s Genesis reading. Most of the focus of interpreters has been on Abraham’s faith and his willingness to follow God’s guidance. As Hebrews says, for example,

Sacrifice of Isaac
The Sacrifice of Isaac, Giovanni Battista Piazetta (1715)

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

But there is another strain within Jewish and Christian interpretation that puts the emphasis on Isaac. Hippolytus of Rome says in his Commentary on the Song of Songs, “The blessed Isaac became desirous of the anointing and he wished to sacrifice himself for the sake of the world” (On the Song 2:15). Our liturgical tradition sees Isaac as a prefiguring of Christ, who voluntarily gave himself up for the life of the world, which is why Gen 22:1-18 is one of the 15 OT readings on Holy Saturday. This makes even more sense if it is remembered that in Jewish tradition, Isaac was not a young boy or youth (as he is most often depicted), but a mature man of 37 years old. He carried the wood, walked up the mountain, placed himself on the altar and was bound—all willingly, trusting his father.

A Church that Goes Out of Itself

Yesterday an OCA priest friend sent out some comments he’d seen by Pope Francis speaking to bishops in Argentina. He thought they were equally applicable to our church as well, and I agree.

“Mission” he notes, “is key to ministry”. A Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms”. Pope Francis went on to concede that at times, like anyone else, in going out the Church risks running into accidents. But he added “I prefer a thousand times over a Church of accidents than a sick Church”.

Pope Francis said that the church typically suffers from being self-referential, of only looking to and relying on itself. He spoke of a “narcissism that leads to a routine spirituality and convoluted clericalism” and prevents people from experiencing the sweet and comforting joy of evangelization.

I myself don’t especially like the language of “sweetness” in describing Christian joy, but that’s quibbling. Another priest commented that “Father Alexander Schmemann also spoke about the Church that has become interested in itself as its own goal, instead of being the vehicle through which the world is served and loved, and so we define more and more ministries that service the cult, and disregard the ministry done by our humble parishioners who teach regular children in schools, develop computing tools and methods, repair automobiles, etc.”

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But Father Schmemann also said that Orthodoxy is balance, and worship is a big part of resetting the balance in a world that says worship is a waste of time. I’m serving Presanctified Liturgy this morning in Saint Sergius Chapel. Yesterday evening Metropolitan Tikhon presided at the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete, sharing the reading with Father Eric Tosi, Father Basil Summer and me.