FIGURE OF THE RAM AMONGST THE BRIARS ABRAHAM AND ISAAC
"Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw behind his back a ram amongst the briars sticking fast by the horns, which he took and offered for a holocaust instead of his son." (Gen. 22:13)
1. The most difficult and painful command ever given to any man was that received from God by the holy Patriarch Abraham. God said to him: "Take thy only begotten son, Isaac, whom thou lovest and go into the land of vision; and there thou shalt offer him for a holocaust upon one of the mountains which I will show thee." Isaac was the only son that Abraham had from his wife Sara. She had conceived him through a miracle, because she was old and naturally barren, and without a great prodigy Sara could not have given birth to any child. Abraham loved Isaac in common with all parents. Nature has implanted in the heart of parents a strong affection for their children. The helpless condition and manifold wants of childhood render this affection necessary. But parental affection is highly intensified when it is concentrated in an only child, and this a son. Such was Isaac. "Take thy only begotten son, Isaac, whom thou lovest." But the love of Abraham for Isaac was enhanced and increased by other motives. Abraham was a most pious and virtuous father. If nature generates in the heart of parents a strong affection for their children, virtue purifies, enobles and strengthens it a hundredfold. Virtuous parental affection is an emanation of the love of the God-head, from whom all paternity in heaven and upon earth is derived, as St. Paul. says. (Eph. 3:15) Hence, the affection of a pious and virtuous father for his child has the tenacity and vigor of a manly and noble heart, purified, elevated, and fortified by divine love. The more this supernatural love increases towards God, the more parental affection is intensified towards the child. Happy child of 'such a father! '
2. Now, Abraham was a most eminently devout servant of God. He is the father of the faithful, and a model of divine love. From this we may conclude how ardently he loved his son Isaac. Again, Isaac deserved his father's love. He was his only begotten son. He was in the flower of his age, and in the full blood of manhood. He was handsome, noble-looking, full of health and manly vigor. Isaac was the son of promise: he was to be the father of nations as numerous as the stars in the firmament. (Gen. 15:5) Promises of very numerous progeny were repeatedly made to Abraham by God, who said to him, "I will make thee increase exceedingly .... 1 will bless Sara, and of her I will give thee a son, whom I will bless, and he shall become nations, and kings of people shall spring from him." (Gen. 17) But what endeared Isaac to the heart of his saintly father was his respectful behavior towards his parents, his docility, and eminent piety. Young in age, Isaac was already ripe in the virtues that adorn and ennoble a youthful son. It is this precious child that Abraham is called upon to sacrifice with his own hands, and then to burn his body with fire, until it be totally consumed, as the victim of an holocaust. But this command has been given by God in order to render manifest to all future generations the eminent sanctity of father and son.
3. The sacrifice should have been painful, but the agony of the father's heart would have been shorter had the victim been immolated on the spot without delay; such, however, was not to be the case. Abraham had to undertake a long journey of three days' duration, having continually under his paternal eyes his innocent and beloved child. With his cheerful and affectionate attentions, Isaac, unconscious of his destination, rendered himself every moment more pleasing to his thoughtful father. With sentiments of deep devotion, Isaac spoke to his father of the inward joy of his heart in anticipation of the great sacrifice they were going to offer to Almighty God. Abraham looked at his son with more than usual tenderness, shed some tears, and was silent.
On the third day Abraham saw the mountain selected by God for the sacrifice of Isaac. He began at once to make his preparation. He left his two servants and provisions at the foot of the hill. He took the wood that he had brought with him for the holocaust, put it on the shoulders of his son; and he himself carried in his hands fire and a sword, and they went together, side by side. Isaac, with all the simplicity and confidence of childhood, said to Abraham: "My father! behold we have with us the fire and the wood, but where is the victim for the holocaust ? " Oh! what emotions must at that moment have been excited in the heart of Abraham! But with an heroic self-possession he calmly answered: "God will provide Himself a victim for an holocaust, my son." Having at last arrived at the appointed place, Abraham laid the sword and the fire upon the ground, and took the dry wood from the shoulders of his son. With loose stones they immediately began to prepare a temporary altar about seven feet long, and three or four feet wide and high. Upon the stones they arranged some smaller kindling wood, and over this the larger pieces which they had split and brought along with them. Could we penetrate into the sanctuary of Abraham's heart and see what his feelings are at this awful moment! He is looking at the bright sharp weapon with which he has been commanded to slay his own most beloved child. He sees before him the altar, the wood, and fire with which he shall have to burn his lifeless body. Whilst we are reflecting, Abraham acts. Behold he affectionately embraces his son, kisses and with tears in his eyes declares to him the command of God. Isaac feels a shudder creeping through his frame, but, doing violence to his natural feelings, bravely consents, in obedience to God, to be immolated for His honor and glory. He steps on the altar, lays himself down on the wood, like an innocent child on his bed, allows himself to be bound with cords by his father, lifts up his eyes to heaven, and recommends his soul to God. His father seizes the sword, raises it up in the air, gives a glance at his son, and aims the mortal blow at his heart. But God is satisfied with the dispositions of father and son. An angel says to Abraham: "Lay not thy hand upon the boy, neither do thou anything to him. Now I know that thou fearest God, and hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake."
4. Here is an example for parents and for children. When children receive a legitimate command from their parents which is painful to their feelings, they should reflect on the obedience of Isaac. The command of God manifested to him by the mouth of his father was extremely painful to nature. But this dutiful son was ready to sacrifice his very life in obedience to God's command. No such command will ever be given again to any child. But let children remember that they are obliged to obey their parents, when their orders are conformable to the law of God. If the command is painful to nature, let children reflect on the obedience of Isaac, and humbly obey. Parents also have a bright example in the holy Patriarch Abraham. He loved his only begotten son as much, at least, and very likely more, than any modern parent can love his child. But when called by God to sacrifice him, he was ready to obey. Parents! Christian parents! God may require the sacrifice of a beloved child, not by your own hand, but by ordinary death. Learn from this holy father to be submissive to the will of God. God may call your child to a higher and holier state of life: as you desire your eternal salvation, and that of your child, beware of opposing his or her holy vocation. This vocation may demand a sacrifice from your human, perhaps too human, affection; but how great soever your sacrifice may be in your estimation, it cannot be compared to that of Abraham. "This holy Patriarch was so determined upon executing the command of God (St. John Chrysostom wisely observes), that he carefully concealed it from his wife, lest she should, in her maternal affection and grief, attempt to dissuade and prevent the painful sacrifice of their beloved child. This wise precaution was suggested to Abraham by the sincerity and eagerness of his obedience to the command of God. For the same motive he began his journey very early in the morning, before he could be observed by any of his relations or neighbors. He was at some considerable distance from them before they could be aware of his departure: Moreover, they were kept in ignorance, not only of the object, but also of the place of his destination. Consider now how painful it must have been for the affectionate heart of this holy man to be conversing alone with his son, apart from all other persons, when the affections are more warmly excited, and attachment becomes stronger, and this not for a few hours, not for one or two, but for several days and nights. It would have been an heroic act of human fortitude to sacrifice his son immediately after receiving the divine command; but who can sufficiently admire the astonishing strength of character in Abraham, when we behold him free from any symptom of human weakness, or from any sign of parental tenderness towards his son when alone with him on the summit of Moriah? What language can describe his strength of virtue when we contemplate him, in obedience to God, calmly binding Isaac to the wooden altar, seize the sacrificing knife, and raise up the hand to inflict the mortal stroke on the heart of his only son? ... It is impossible to understand how it happened that his paternal hand was not paralyzed by horror, how the strength of his nerves was not relaxed by anguish, and the affecting sight of his prostrate son did not overpower his spirit. Behold, then, in Abraham the father and the sacrificing priest, with his own son as the divinely selected victim. God, however, did not wish to see the flowing blood of Isaac, but He desired to give us an example of perfect obedience. He wished to make known to the whole world the virtue of this admirable man, and to teach all mankind that it is necessary to prefer the command of God before children and nature; before all things, and life itself. The command given by God to Abraham, naturally speaking, was enough to stagger his reason, to throw him into the deepest perplexity, and to undermine his faith in the past. For who would not have thought that the promise which had been made to him of a numerous posterity was all a deception? But Abraham hoped against hope, and his faith in God triumphed. He descended from the mount, enriched with merits, replenished with the most precious blessings of God, and with his paternal heart overflowing with heavenly joy he returned to his home, in company with his son, full of life and happiness, and adorned with the crown of martyrdom. Thus in Isaac we behold a type of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How can we be pardoned then, or what apology can we have, if we see that noble man obeying God with so much promptness, and submitting to Him in all things, and yet we murmur at His dispensations? With faith and hope in God, like Abraham, let us in all our trials and sorrows be perfectly submissive to God's adorable will." (St. John Chrysostom, serm. 5, de Lazaro)
5. To those who may be surprised at the command given by God to this holy Patriarch, we have only to say that God is the Master of life and death. God has absolute dominion over all His creatures. He could at any time demand the entire immolation of any person. God demands this sacrifice at the point of our death, and He sends death to us whenever He pleases. But in His paternal goodness, and in the exercise of His justice, God is satisfied with our resignation to His divine will, when the time of our death arrives. He has been pleased to substitute other victims when sacrifice is required for religious worship. In the Old Testament different animals were immolated among the Jews. In the Christian religion we have a more worthy Victim in the sacrifice of the Mass. No religion can exist without sacrifice. Pagan worship is a proof of this truth. The motive and the object of pagan sacrifices may be wrong, but the principle is sound: Since the fall of Adam sacrifice became an essential duty of man; and it has always been offered in every nation with any pretension to religion. The only exception is found in Protestantism, and this fact alone is sufficient to demonstrate that Protestantism is no religion, because it has rejected Sacrifice, which is essential to religious worship. After this digression, which is not without its object, we will return to Abraham, and from history we will pass to mystery.
6. In obedience to the command of the angel, Abraham unbound his son Isaac, bade him rise, and come down from the altar. Then, turning" round, "he saw behind his back a ram among the briars sticking fast by the horns to the thorny branches." By a secret inspiration he understood the prophetic meaning of his own words, when a short time before Abraham said to his son: "God will provide Himself a victim for the holocaust." He took, therefore, this ram so providentially sent to him by God, "and offered it for an holocaust instead of his son."
In this wonderful history of Isaac we have a remarkable figure of our divine Savior, from his birth to his passion, death, and resurrection. The miraculous conception and birth of Isaac is a striking figure of that of our Lord. Both were beyond and above the laws of nature. Abraham and Sara were worthy figures of St. Joseph and our Blessed Lady. Isaac was about the age of our Lord when commanded to be sacrificed. The place of the sacrifice was the same for both. Mount Moriah and Mount Calvary are the same mountain. When we saw Isaac carrying upon his shoulders the wood intended for the sacrifice; when we saw him voluntarily laying himself down upon it to be immolated as a victim, we could not but see in his person a most striking figure of our Lord carrying his cross to Mount Calvary to be crucified and immolated upon it. Abraham, with fire in one hand and a sword in the other, is a figure of the Eternal Father. The fire signified the charity of the Eternal Father in giving us His divine Son, as an holocaust for our redemption. The sword showed that the death of His divine Son could only take place in obedience to his will. As no one but Abraham could immolate his son Isaac, so no created power could deprive of life the incarnate Son of God; He could die only when and how God decreed. God's omnipotent will was the sword that really inflicted the stroke of death on the Victim of Calvary. It was the same omnipotent will that restored life to him at his glorious resurrection. In this respect Isaac was also a figure of the Redeemer. Morally and in the sight of God, Isaac died when he consented to be immolated in obedience to His command, manifested to him through the mouth of his father. It was through the miraculous
interposition of God that his life was spared. When Isaac sprang up from the sacrificial altar, full of life, vigor and joy, he represented the resurrection of our Savior. So far the figure seems to be perfect. "Mortis et resurrectionis figuram in altari positam," St. John Chrysostom says.
7. But we have now to consider the Crown of Thorns. Look then, dear reader, at the ram among the briars sticking fast by the horns to their thorny branches; and what can we see in it, but the Lamb of God crowned with thorns? The ram has its head surrounded with thorns immediately before being sacrificed; Jesus is crowned with thorns before his crucifixion. The ram is bound with cords and placed by Abraham on the wood of the altar; Jesus is bound likewise, then laid on the wood of the cross. The altar upon which the mysterious animal is immolated was erected on Mount Moriah; this hill is a portion of Mount Calvary, whereon the cross of our Redeemer is planted. It was God who sent the ram to Abraham; and God only could send to us His divine Son. God sent to Abraham the victim as a substitute for his son Isaac; God sent Jesus to be sacrificed for our redemption and eternal salvation. Behold how the mysteries of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the Person of the Incarnate Word.
We have seen that among these mysteries the Crown of Thorns has a very prominent part. We might have mentioned more figures of the Crown of Thorns. But for the sake of brevity we will merely indicate them. The altar within the tabernacle whereon incense was burned was surrounded with a golden crown. (Exod. 30:3) The table for the service of the altar had also a crown of gold. (Exod. 25:25) Crowns formed of chains adorned the heads of the pillars in Solomon's Temple, and were graven in the ceiling. (2 Paralip. 3) Wreaths of network were carved on the chapters of all the pillars (Paralip 4:13). The miter on the head of the high Pontiff, and the crown of golden chains on the top of the Rational, and the Ephod which he carried on his breast, were all figures of our Savior's Crown of Thorns. (Exod. 28) Other figures could be gathered from the Old Testament; but what we have brought forward should be more than sufficient to show that God has always been anxious to keep before the eyes of faith the great mystery of the crown of our Savior. We are therefore deeply convinced that the devotion which we advocate in this little book will be pleasing to Him, and will prove both agreeable and profitable to Christian souls. From the figures we will now pass to the reality.