The old man lifted his bundle onto his shoulder after stooping over and picking up his walking stick. Next to him, his son bent over with his own burden of food and water. He had sprouted up that spring, and had the gangly look all boys get just before they start to fill out into manhood.
“Heavy?” Abraham asked.
“No, father,” Isaac said stoically.
Abraham smiled sadly at that. Isaac had his mother’s eyes and laughter, but his stubbornness was wholly from him. He marveled at how much joy their son brought to him, even now.
Sarah, her long silver hair pulled back and covered with a linen cloth, leaned down and kissed her son, smoothing down the unruly mop of dark curls on his head. She turned and smiled at her husband.
“Be safe,” she said, “and come home quickly.”
“I will, love,” he said quietly, reaching out to touch her face, “We’ll be home by the full moon.” He turned quickly to their son, fighting back tears at his deception.
“All right, strong man, let’s get going,” he said gently, stepping off. Isaac gave his mother one final wave, then followed.
Behind him, the campsite they had occupied for a month was waking up. Ewes were bleating to their lambs, and the young boys and men started moving them to the pasture just to the west. Be’er Sheva was a beautiful place, and they had been fortunate to have lived there in peace long enough for their herds to fatten.
A hot wind blew out of the desert as they walked toward the distant hills to the north, pushing at their backs as they went. The boy started to hum as they trudged along, his feet moving in time with the tune.
The soldier kicked out at the Jew and growled, “Move, dog!”
Jesus stumbled through the Roman prison’s gate. The heavy cross-beam he carried made the whip marks on his shoulders and back burn. The soldiers had removed the purple robe they had dressed him in and given him back the tattered remains of his own clothes, but they had prevented him from removing the wreath of thorns they had forced down onto his head. Streaks of drying blood painted his cheeks as he began to trudge down the cobblestone street.
Already, people lined the narrow way. Some looked on quietly, more curious of this additional Passover spectacle than anything else. A few, with faces he had seen when he was speaking at the temple or in the streets, seemed mournful as they watched him pass. Most, though, watched him go with anger on their faces and in their voices.
At another time, he would have stopped to talk with all of them, to let them hear his words, and to listen to them. Now, any time he slowed from a steady trudge, one of the soldiers hit him with the heavy club they all carried or struck him with his fist.
Jesus looked down at the cobblestones and continued walking. The different pains he felt as he moved built a rhythm to follow.
Abraham and Isaac walked until the heat of the day became too great, then they sheltered for a few hours under the small tent Abraham carried. While they sat there, Abraham retold the stories of how he and Sarah had come from their homeland between the rivers. Isaac had always enjoyed listening to his father speak, and he knew the stories well enough that he could pick them up and continue when Abraham paused.
After the heat had passed somewhat, Abraham rolled the tent up and they continued their journey across the arid plain. Energized by their rest, Isaac peppered his father with questions.
“Father, will we see where cousin Lot’s wife turned to salt?” he asked, kicking at a small stone.
“No, that’s off to the east,” Abraham replied, “And it’s a wasteland now.”
“Will we go there someday?” his son asked.
“Maybe someday,” Abraham said, changing the subject and picking up the pace, “Come, let’s try to get to those hills by sunset.
Jesus picked himself up from the ground. His legs had given out as he had paused before taking the first step down a small dip in the road, breaking the rhythm he had been following. The soldiers had clustered around him then, their curses and kicks bringing only more misery. For a moment, he had considered just lying there and letting them finish the job.
But now, he was back on his feet. With a groan, he pulled the crossbeam back onto his shoulder. He took one hesitant step, then another, and then fell back into the rhythm he had followed before falling.
For a time, the noise of the crowd faded as he walked, and the bright light of the sun, beating down into the streets of Jerusalem, was all that he could see. The world around him washed out in a dazzling white, and though he could still feel every bit of the pain, it did not seem to matter as much.
Then, just as quickly, he saw the surface of the road racing up to meet him as he fell again. The beam on his shoulders struck him in the back as he hit the cobblestones, knocking the breath from him. The thorns on his head dug in as his face scraped on the road, and the wounds on his head began to bleed again.
A woman knelt down next to him, gently wiping the blood from his face with a soft cloth.
Jesus looked up at her, and through the dust in his throat, croaked out, “Thank you,” before one of the soldiers batted her across the back of the head and shouted “Move! Get out of the way!”
One of the other soldiers kicked at Jesus’ legs, yelling “Get up!” Jesus tried, but the weight of the crossbeam pinned him down. No matter how hard he strained, or how many times the soldier struck him, he could not rise with the weight of the cross on his back.
Abraham and Isaac walked through the steadily steepening hills, sometimes climbing them, and sometimes walking around their bases. When the sun was high in the sky or low on the horizon, Abraham would pitch their tent and they would rest. On the second day, Isaac spied a wild goat on the hillside, and Abraham knocked it down with a stone from his sling. Isaac clapped at the feat, then ran to finish it off with his knife.
That night, as they ate their fill of roasted goat, Isaac looked across the fire at his father and smiled.
“Thank you, father,” he said, “This is wonderful.”
“Don’t thank me, child,” Abraham answered, pointing to the stars, “Thank the Lord. He put the goat where we could see it and steadied my hand so that I could hit it with my sling.”
Isaac looked down at the fire for a moment, then asked, “Father, where are we going?”
Abraham sighed. He had been expecting this question since before they had left.
“The Lord told me to take you north to a mountain he will show me,” he said gravely, “He wants us to build him an altar there and offer a sacrifice.”
“But what will we sacrifice?” Isaac asked, “We didn’t bring anything with us.”
“Don’t worry about that, son,” Abraham answered, blinking to hold back tears in the gloom, “The Lord will provide one.” Isaac looked at him for a moment, then looked back down at the glowing coals of their fire.
Behind them, the mountains loomed up from the hills. Tomorrow, they would reach the place the Lord had shown Abraham.
The soldier finally gave up trying to get Jesus on his feet and looked around at the crowd.
“You!” he shouted, pointing at a young man, “Get over here and pick that thing up!”
“Why me?” he retorted, “I don’t know this man!”
“Get over here and pick it up, or you’ll take his place!” the soldier roared, his hand going to his sword.
The young man’s shoulders sagged. He knelt next to Jesus, putting his arms around the crossbeam.
“Thank you,” was all Jesus could gasp out. The man nodded gravely and lifted the crossbeam up onto his shoulders. Once it was balanced there, he offered his hand to the fallen prisoner, who took it and levered himself up onto his feet.
Together, they began to trudge through the streets of Jerusalem again. The crowd continued shouting at Jesus and pelting him with insults and curses. The young man was not immune to their ire, and cried out every so often that he was only doing as he was told. On several occasions, the soldiers had to beat the crowd back with their clubs so that Jesus could continue his walk toward the edge of the city.
The next morning, Abraham let Isaac sleep until after the sun peeked over the horizon. He sat alone and prayed to his God, begging him to show a different path. When he heard his son stir in the tent, he got up from his knees and walked over.
“Time to go, Isaac,” he said gently as the boy raised himself up from the blankets, “We’ll be there today.”
Isaac stretched and crawled out of the tent. After eating what was left of the goat, they packed up their things and resumed their walk up the steep foothills to the mountain. Abraham carried both packs this morning, and directed Isaac to gather firewood as they went.
“We’ll need it for the sacrifice, and it doesn’t look like much grows at the top of that mountain,” he said as they started off.
Through the morning, they made steady progress over the hills and up the side of the mountain. Just as the sun was reaching its zenith, Abraham found a gentler path leading up to the summit. By now, Isaac had gathered an entire armload of sticks and small logs, which Abraham bound up after cutting a long piece from a goatskin. Almost as an afterthought, he cut several more lengths from the skin and tied them to his belt.
After the hottest part of the day had passed, Abraham stood up from the shade of a rock, where they had been resting, and pointed up the path.
“Let’s go,” he said, his voice gruff, “I want to be done by nightfall.”
They both hefted their loads onto their shoulders and began to trudge up the path. Abraham felt each and every one of his years as the weight of his load bore down on him, but Isaac struggled as well. As strong as he was for a boy, he had been walking for days, and now carried a heavy load of wood up a steep mountain path. Soon, he was falling behind his father, who paused several times to let him catch up.
Finally, about one third of the way up the path, Abraham leaned his walking staff against a tall rock and put his hand out.
“Here, give it to me,” he said, “You’ve carried it far enough.”
Isaac reluctantly handed over his burden, and looked down at the ground.
“I’m sorry, father,” he said.
“It’s a heavy burden, Isaac,” Abraham said, “You did a good job gathering the wood, and you’ve been carrying it most of the day. I can take it the rest of the way for you.” He turned and resumed his walk up the path.
Jesus trudged through the city gates. Next to them stood a group of women, tears running freely from their eyes. At their center was his own mother, a stricken look of grief on her face. Her arms trembled as she reached out to him.
Jesus raised his hand to reach for her, and they touched for a moment before his next step drew him away from her. He heard her wail as a soldier pushed her back, and he turned and continued his journey.
The road led them to the base of a hill, its course tilting up steeply toward the summit. Jesus took a tentative step up, and felt his knee wobble underneath him. He lifted his other leg to take another step, and his leg went out from under him. Tipping toward the stone surface of the road, he stretched his arms out to cushion the fall. The soldiers must have anticipated this, because they were on him immediately, beating him savagely until he regained his feet and continued walking up the hill.
Behind him, the young man carrying his load grunted as he took the first step up the dusty path, but did not pause long enough to earn a beating. Together, they leaned into the hill and walked the final few yards to its top.
When they reached the top of the mountain, the father and son found a wide plateau strewn with rocks and thorn bushes. Around them, higher peaks created long shadows in the valleys below. Abraham set his load down with a groan and pulled out the water skin. He offered it to Isaac, who gulped down several mouthfuls before handing it back to his father.
Abraham took a drink, then put the skin away. Looking around, he nodded.
“This is the place,” he said, “Help me build an altar.”
For the next hour or so, they carefully stacked stones to make a low altar. Abraham showed Isaac how to put them together so that their weight supported each other and locked them into place. Finally, it was done.
They took the wood they had carried with them and laid it on the altar. Abraham took the long knife he carried from his belt, and lay in on the stones next to the firewood.
Isaac looked around the plateau, then turned to his father.
“Father, where is the sacrifice?” he asked, “You said the Lord would provide it.”
Abraham knelt down next to his son and held him tight to his breast. Tears welled up in his eyes as he gently ran his hand down the boy’s hair.
“He has, my son,” he said, choking on the words, “He has.”
Abraham took one of the lengths of goat skin from his belt and wrapped it around Isaac’s wrists. The boy looked up at him in shock, then tried to pull away. Abraham grabbed him by the shoulder, and finished the knot with his free hand.
“Father!” Isaac cried out, “What are you doing?” He continued to struggle.
“Isaac, stop!” Abraham said, tears streaming down his bearded face, “The Lord has demanded that I give you to him. Please, don’t fight.”
Isaac’s eyes widened, and his struggles ceased. His own tears carved streaks in the dust on his face, but he did not resist as his father bound his legs and ankles, then gently carried him to the altar.
Jesus fell to his knees as they reached the top of the hill, and the young man carrying his crossbeam collapsed next to him. Two soldiers lifted the beam from his shoulders, then lay it on the thick pole kept there for executions. Two other men lay on the ground nearby, waiting for their turn to be hoisted aloft.
A centurion, the red plume of his helmet moving in the breeze, barked an order, and soldiers tore Jesus’ tattered robes from his back. Two of them fit the crossbeam onto the pole, then lashed the two pieces together.
Jesus cried out as the soldiers roughly picked him up and dropped him on the cross. Strong hands gripped his arms and legs as they tied him down and pulled the cords tight. Above his head, a man nailed a piece of wood to the cross. Jesus heard gravel crunch under his sandals as he stepped over to the end of the crossbeam.
The centurion nodded curtly to the man, who placed a long spike against Jesus’ wrist. The Nazarene stared up at the sun as he felt its sharp point press against his skin, then cried out as the man struck it with his mallet, driving it down.
Abraham held his son to his breast as he walked to the altar. Isaac was bound tightly, but could lean his head into his father’s shoulder. He sobbed softly as Abraham closed his hand over his head and held him tight.
“Don’t cry, son,” Abraham said, “You are the Lord’s chosen, and you will be with Him soon.”
Isaac nodded, but his tears did not cease.
Abraham reached the altar and placed his son on the stack of wood. He raised his face to the sky, its edges starting to redden with the setting sun, and prayed.
“Lord, thy will be done!” he cried out, his voice breaking with pain.
Jesus hung from his cross, looking down upon Jerusalem and the temple. Around him, the soldiers either lounged in the late-day sunshine or checked on the other two men dying on their crosses.
His mother and several of his friends stood close by. The soldiers would not let them come to the top of the hill, but they had shouted to him several times, and he had replied until he no longer had the strength.
Now, his breath coming in agonized gasps, he barely had the strength to lift his head from his chest. In the city below him, the temple gleamed blood red in the light of the setting sun, and as he watched, he saw a man approaching a rough altar, a bound sacrifice in his arms.
Abraham fell to his knees in front of the altar, lifting up handfuls of dust and rubbing them into his hair as he cried out. “My Lord, my Lord,” he wailed, “I offer you my son, as you commanded!”
He stood up shakily and took up the knife he had laid on the altar. Isaac lay there, his eyes locked on his father. A shudder ran through Abraham as he brushed the boy’s cheek with the back of his fingers, then brought his hand up to hold the knife a few inches above his son’s chest.
He paused there for a moment, staring up at the sky, then heaved the knife up, holding it over his head.
Jesus saw the man lift his arms, the glint of the sunlight bright against the blade in his hand, and pause for a moment before the final downward stroke. The pain and fatigue of his body melted as he reared his head up.
“Abraham!” he shouted, “Abraham, stop!” Below him, the soldiers and his friends all looked up at him in astonishment.
Abraham heard the thunder of a voice coming from the mountain above him, and froze. It was the voice which had commanded him to leave his home in the east, had told him that Sarah would bear him a son, and had ordered him to bring their child to this lonely mountaintop.
“Abraham!” the voice boomed, ““Abraham, stop!”!”
The old man turned toward the sound, which seemed to flow from the blood-red horizon, where the sun was finishing its journey below the mountains. There, on a tall peak, he saw a man, bloodied and beaten, hanging in the air.
Abraham fell to his knees, dropping the knife on the altar with a clatter.
“Father, what is it?” Isaac cried out. He had heard the voice too, but could not turn his head enough to see the horizon.
“It is the Lord, our God!” Abraham replied. As he watched, the vision of the man faded, and in its place, he saw a ram, struggling to free its horns from a bush, a few yards from the edge of the plateau.
“Oh, my Lord, thank you!” he shouted, jumping to his feet and running to the sheep. Grabbing it by its horns, he dragged it to the altar. He took the knife and cut the thongs holding Isaac’s arms and wrists.
As Isaac climbed down from the altar, he marveled at both the ram and the tears which streamed anew down his father’s face.
“You see, my son?” Abraham said joyfully, “The Lord has provided the sacrifice for us.”
Jesus watched as Abraham and Isaac bound the ram and placed it on the altar. He slumped down in exhaustion as the vision faded. For a few minutes, he hung there, gasping. Below, he could hear his mother’s cries and the centurion barking orders.
Finally, he lifted his head one last time and whispered, “Father, it is done.” Above him, the heavens opened up with peals of thunder as his head dropped to his chest.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
– The Gospel of Saint John, Chapter 3, Verse 16
Sacrifice is one of the stories in my latest collection. I wanted to share it with you all this Good Friday.
I wish you all a blessed Easter.