The Agony of Abraham

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt 1635

The River Thames froze in January of 1649.  The King asked Thomas Herbert, the Parliamentarian official attending him, to dress him in two shirts, lest the rabble, watching him die, think that he shivered from cowardice. Charles insisted, “I fear not death. Death is not terrible to me, bless my God, I am prepared.”

In the 17th century, the only way to change the English government was to change the King. The problem Parliament faced was that, as long as the King refused to yield, any change it proposed could be later undone. And in the mind of Charles I, as long as he lived, he had to resist any erosion of the authority given him by God. Decades of strife could end only with the death of the King. Both factions eventually saw this as inevitable. For Parliament it was liberty and progress. For Charles, it meant anarchy and martyrdom.


Imagine the mind of a man facing death, loosed from the illusion that it is far removed and uncertain. It’s not easy to do, because we dwell in that delusion. Freud thought it impossible, truly to picture one’s own death. At the last moment, he insisted, the imagination shifts perspective, watches someone else enter the darkness.

Yet enter the agony of Abraham, leading his son to certain death. They journeyed together into the land of Moriah, only the father knowing that the death of the son had been decreed.  How does the mind manage such terror? How does it expel the images that assault the imagination? Death is certain. Only the details are undetermined. This is the fiendish strategy of ISIS, seeding the imagination with dread. King Charles imagined himself shivering in the icy wind. He could not give his enemies the satisfaction of his supposed fear.

God never acts partially. God gives self completely. We cannot do that. We want to be whole, in deed and intention, but we are divided. We must picture the future, ponder the present, and then summon up the strength to respond. And in our division, we must do this again and again. We can’t give the self once for always. That is why Lent returns each spring, seeking the surrender of a self we’ve only since discovered. Asking if we really believe


If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son
but handed him over for us all,
how will he not also give us everything else along with him? (Rom 8:31-32)


Death divides us from God, because on this side of the grave we remain incomplete, tentative, only partially committed. In the mind, in the musings of the soul, there is a deadly divide we dare to cross. It may well be the death of one we love. We cannot reconcile a loving God and the inevitability of this death. The imagination expends itself in suppression, until life forces the issue. Then forgetfulness gives way to fright, and a terror we dare not confess takes us captive.

That was agony of Abraham; that would be the martyrdom of Mary: to know that the death of a loved one is coming. The details, which the imagination draws, deride our trust in God. Where do we find the strength of soul to settle the imagination?


As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead (Mk 9:9).


Christ knows they are but men. Death haunts his cause and company. Unlike the divine, the human is ever divided, ever struggling to perceive, to imagine, and to accept. That is the agony of Abraham, the dilemma of the disciple. Grace must give them a way to accept his death, to wrestle in advance with what it means. And so he is transfigured. Before his disciples enter the darkness of Moriah, love and fellowship dart out like sparks. For a merciful moment, grace governs dark fantasy.

King Charles I spent his last hours with William Juxon, the Bishop of London, who prayed with him, gave him Holy Communion, read him scripture. It was the twenty-seventh chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the death of Christ.  The King asked if the passage had been deliberately chosen. No, the bishop told him. It was the lesson the prayer book had appointed for the day. This greatly cheered Charles.

At the scaffold, Bishop Juxon told the king that he would soon be in heaven. To claim the soul, grace must first gain the imagination. Charles replied, “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbances, in the world.”

Human life is full of such “disturbances” because it is divided, still struggling for completion. That is the very agony of Abraham, to picture what must be and to find the strength to surrender. It is also the lesson of Lent.

Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18  Romans 8: 31b-34  Mark 9:2-10

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4 years ago
What an extraordinary piece. -- A beautiful insight, beautifully presented -- a triptych as powerful and persuasive as Romans 8:15. -- Many Thanks, Father Klein.


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