When I was going through the lectionary and meditating on the appointed readings for Holy Week this year, I noticed a recurring passage that I did not recall from past readings of the scriptures: Isaiah Chapter 50. Most Christians are familiar with the prophetic imagery associated with the Passion which we find in Isaiah 53, which speaks of the Suffering Servant being bruised for our transgressions, by Whose stripes we are healed. But this earlier passage has completely eluded me over the years, and its rich poetic language evoked two striking and vivid images that I wish to share with you all.
The Lord God has given Me The tongue of the learned, That I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary. He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear To hear as the learned. The Lord God has opened My ear; And I was not rebellious, Nor did I turn away. I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting. For the Lord God will help Me; Therefore I will not be disgraced; Therefore I have set My face like a flint, And I know that I will not be ashamed. He is near who justifies Me; Who will contend with Me? Let us stand together. Who is My adversary? Let him come near Me. Surely the Lord God will help Me; Who is he who will condemn Me? Indeed they will all grow old like a garment; The moth will eat them up. Who among you fears the Lord? Who obeys the voice of His Servant? Who walks in darkness And has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord And rely upon his God. Look, all you who kindle a fire, Who encircle yourselves with sparks: Walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks you have kindled– This you shall have from My hand: You shall lie down in sorrow (Isaiah 50:4-11).
While there is plenty to explore here, I wish to primarily focus on the imagery of the Servant’s face as a flint. As we are all aware, a flint is a stone which easily and naturally produces sparks when it is struck. What does this image have to teach us about the Savior and about humanity? During His Passion, Christ endured the mockery and scorn of the crowds as well as that of the Roman soldiers carrying out His scourging and execution. They spat upon His beautiful face, and they ripped His beard out of His face in bloody tufts. The One in whom the invisible God is made visible had His visage marred and mutilated beyond repair. But why? For what purpose was His countenance so defiled?
Two purposes are made evident based on two possible translations of the text. The first image is based on the translation ending with “You shall lie down in sorrow.” Who walks in darkness and has no light? Here we find not only those past enemies of Christ who heaped their scorn upon Him, but also we find ourselves with scarlet-stained hands and clenched fists. Look, all you who kindle a fire, Who encircle yourselves with sparks: Walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks you have kindled– This you shall have from My hand: You shall lie down in sorrow. In the midst of our darkness, it is as if we are trapped within a pitch-black room without windows or any source of light from outside. As we lose ourselves in our sin and violence, we gnash our teeth and we strike His face. This inner room is actually the outer-darkness which the Lord continually referenced in His parables and teachings (St. Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). Lost in our hatred, fear, and death-bringing ferocity we heap all of our contempt upon God, not only passively denying Him but in reality bringing the full force of our derision. Simply stated, we are lost inside of ourselves. But it is precisely this state from which He comes to save us. For with each blow we inflict upon His face, a spark comes into the room.
He receives these abrasions in total humility, all the while praying for those who persecute Him and blessing those who curse Him (St. Luke 6:27-28). In His perfection, He absorbs our violence into Himself and by His example becomes a source of illumination. And this great revelation of the peaceful path, even unto death, is the enlightenment which causes the sparks to fly from His face and to allow the light to pour forth into that inner room which is the outer-darkness. Here we also find a great reversal: while many see in the sacrifices of the Old Covenant an appeasing of the divine wrath, here in the New Covenant we rather find the satisfaction of the wrath of all humanity through extreme humility and peace. It is here that our tempers are cooled, not the Father’s anger satisfied by the punishing of His Son. As we continue to beat Him, so the light increases and makes us more aware of our true condition and of our own depravity. Look, all you who kindle a fire, Who encircle yourselves with sparks: Walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks you have kindled– This you shall have from My hand: You shall lie down in sorrow.
We are told to walk, but simultaneously to lie down. How is this possible? It is possible because the light in that outer darkness reveals a path to us not seen before; a new way of life. The way in which we set out on this path is to lie down in sorrow. But this does not refer to the sort of lying down that happens in defeat, but rather the laying down of our lives in self-sacrificial love. To do this is a victory and the path to divinity. The laying down is sorrowful because we are afflicted with a deep pain of heart for the lost and dying world around us. This sorrow is completely pure and has no trace of self-pity or morose despondency, for we imitate the perfection found in the sinless Man of Sorrows (Isaiah 53:3). This laying down in holy sorrow is precisely the path taken by those deified martyrs of ages past whose flesh was likewise given as bread for the life of the world (St. John 6:51).
The second interpretation is derived from another more common and perhaps more accurate translation, that we shall lie down in torment. While this rendering seems to convey the opposite of that which was previously discussed, momentarily we shall see that it is but the other side of the same coin. Let us momentarily return with trembling to the outer darkness. Here the picture is still the same: the mockery and the scourging of Perfection by a lost and fallen humanity. The multitude encircles Him, igniting a flame. But this is not only a flame to illumination, but also one to destruction, for our God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24).
Look, all you who kindle a fire, Who encircle yourselves with sparks…
To see most clearly, here we might envision the Lord’s body on top of a great pile of wood, perhaps a funeral pyre, in order to acutely perceive the destruction of those who defy Perfection with all of their being. As we give the fullness of our hatred to the Son of God, each hit sends out sparks which begin to ignite the flames from beneath our feet. Here we find that it is our own obstinate defiance of holiness which sows the seeds of our own destruction. God does not condemn us arbitrarily or out of cruelty. Rather we slowly condemn ourselves out of our own bloodlust. The flames of the fire gradually increase as the enmity grows in us throughout our lives, continually shunning the path of holy sorrow before us and opting rather for endless rancor and spite. And thus we shall receive this from His hand: we shall lie down in torment upon the pyre which we have built for ourselves.
Finally, these images show us a clearer picture of the reality of eternal life and of the second death, concepts which are often misunderstood in our age of confused theology. Here it is made abundantly clear that what are commonly referred to as Heaven and Hell are but different experiences of the same presence of a Holy God. The defiant heart is set aflame in endless torment; the obedient heart is set aflame with the infinite perfection of divine eros, from Glory to Glory.
Through the prayers of the most-holy Mother of God and of all the saints, let the light of our fire be the seal of Your perfection O Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.