Thursday, December 9, 2010

Advent 2: Icons and Suffering

What follows cannot really be considered an Advent reflection except by the strictest of definitions: it is Advent and I have been reflecting on this lately; thus, it is an Advent reflection. Thematically, however, it is not so. Rather, it is a reflection on icons and suffering, occasioned by a book I have been asked to read – The Pursuit of God – and by certain experiences of my own which should and will remain private. Even out of season, I pray it might prove helpful to some.

Abraham was old when Isaac was born, old enough indeed to have been his grandfather, and the child became at once the delight and idol of his heart. From that moment when he first stooped to take the tiny form awkwardly in his arms he was an eager love slave of his son. God went out of His way to comment on the strength of this affection. And it is not hard to understand. The baby represented everything sacred to his father’s heart: the promises of God, the covenants, the hopes of the years and the long messianic dream. As he watched him grow from babyhood to young manhood the heart of the old man was knit closer with the life of his son, till at last the relationship bordered upon the perilous. It was then that God stepped in to save both father and son from the consequences of an uncleansed love.[1]

A. W. Tozer interprets God’s command to sacrifice Isaac as the destruction of an idol – an unholy love for the son of the covenant – that had displaced Abraham’s single-hearted devotion to God. Perhaps it is so, since both Old Testament and New Testament commentators consider the binding of Isaac as a test of the old man’s faith in and devotion to God.

If we read the text Christologically, however, as did the Church Fathers, we find much more than a test of loyalty there. If in Isaac we see a type of Christ, then in Abraham we must also see a type of God. In asking him to sacrifice his son, his only son Isaac, God was inviting Abraham – and what an agonizing invitation it was – to image God before his son and ultimately before the world. Abraham was given the opportunity – and dare I say, the privilege – to become a flesh and blood icon of the God who would one day complete the sacrificial offering Abraham was asked only to initiate. It was in this act of faithful sacrifice that Abraham was conformed most fully to the likeness of the God who had called him. As with Abraham, so with Isaac: Isaac was never more conformed to the likeness of Jesus as when he was bound on the altar awaiting the fall of the knife.

Do we consider these men blessed to have been made iconic through their sacrifices: Abraham of his son and Isaac of his life? Is there any greater blessing than to be an image-bearer of God the Father or God the Son? How we answer these questions is important, not least because we have been called likewise to be image-bearers, specifically to be conformed to the likeness of the Son. And we will never be more iconic than when we are united to the suffering of Christ. It may well be that the world will never see Christ in us until we lay bound on our own altar of sacrifice awaiting with faithful fear the fall of the knife. May we, like Abraham and Isaac be faithful in our day as they were in theirs.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.[2]

[1] Tozer, A. W. The Pursuit of God.
[2] The Book of Common Prayer 1979. Morning Prayer II, Collect for Fridays.

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