2d Sunday of Lent
March 1, 2015
Gen 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18
Mark 9: 2-10
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle
“God put Abraham to the test” (Gen 22: 1).
On its face, this story of God’s testing of Abraham—which is much more poignant in the full version—confronts us with a cruel God; we might well call him sadistic.
We can’t know the complete story, of course. We can’t even say with certainty when Abraham lived: 1,600 or 1,800 or 2,000 years B.C.; or precisely in what socio-cultural milieu. We can be pretty certain, however, that human sacrifice was part of that culture. We know that it persisted well into Israel’s period of kings and prophets, embedded in the surrounding paganism and sometimes penetrating into Israelite practice. We know that the Law that God gave to Moses stated explicitly that every firstborn male of man or beast belonged to the Lord and had to be sacrificed to him—this was linked to the 10th plague and the Passover in Egypt—but that an ass could be redeemed by sacrificing a sheep as a substitute, and a son had to be redeemed (Ex 13:1-2,12-15).
|Abraham and Isaac preparing the altar of sacrifice, with ram caught nearby|
(mosaic, National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington)
However it was that Abraham understood that God was commanding him to offer his 1st-born (of his wife), in the end God stops him cold and presents him with a substitute sheep. The author of Genesis is pointing us toward the Torah, toward Israel’s higher religious and ethical practice, toward a different way of being in relationship with God. And, as the Fathers of the Church and our liturgy teach, Abraham’s story also points toward the sacrifice of another 1st-born Son, one who would actually be slain on a wooden altar; and that Son is the Lamb who substitutes himself for every one of God’s beloved children who, unlike Isaac, are guilty and under condemnation but for grace.
At the end of Abraham’s test, the promise is renewed. Its fulfillment is assured, after Abraham has been tested and passed the test of complete obedience to God, of utter, blind faith that God will be true to him.
Something similar takes place in the transfiguration story. Jesus has an experience that is bodily in some form—inexplicable to us—that puts him into direct contact with the Divine, revealed in dazzling light and overshadowing cloud and conversation with 2 OT figures believed to have been assumed into heaven. Obviously—to Mark and to us, but not to Peter, James, and John, who lack our benefit of hindsight and Christian faith—Jesus’ resurrection and eternal life are being foreshadowed.
|Transfiguration, by Bellini (1487)|
But on either side of that wondrous experience—the Father’s promise to Jesus, as it were—Jesus’ testing is foretold. A few verses before in Mark’s gospel is the 1st prediction of the passion (8:31), followed by the command that every disciple should take up and carry her own cross in Jesus’ footsteps (8:34). Immediately on descending the mountain, Jesus tells the 3 apostles “not to relate what they have seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man has risen from the dead” (9:9). For Jesus there will be no resurrection, no dazzling light, no participation in the life experienced by Moses and Elijah (and all the faithful keepers of the covenant whom they stand for) until he has gone thru his passion—until he has passed the test of complete obedience to his Father, of utter, blind faith that the Father will be true to him.
If Abraham’s faith and fidelity were tried; if Jesus’ were tried—then surely we expect that ours will be also. “No disciple is greater than his master” (Matt 10:24). We see the faith of hundreds, if not thousands, of our brothers and sisters tried in these days—most famously by ISIS, but also by anti-Christian street violence in Pakistan and India and Egypt, by government persecution in China, etc. But our fidelity is tried on a smaller scale every day: by the challenge to be kind to the people around us; to be respectful of everyone; to let ourselves sometimes be inconvenienced by the demands of community, of relatives, of alumnae, of strangers; to bear our aches and pains and sicknesses without complaining about them and turning them into a cross for everyone else to bear; at the same time, graciously and humbly to accept help that others want to give us because they love us and they love Jesus. Sometimes we’re too darned proud to let others be kind to us! Even Jesus accepted help from Simon of Cyrene and, if legend be true, from Veronica.
“Many are the trials of the just, but from them all the Lord will rescue him” (Ps 34:19). When we prove our fidelity to Jesus—a fidelity that, alas, also requires us to confess our sins, and it’s a humiliation for most of us to do that, even to ourselves—then God will demonstrate his fidelity to us, as he did to Abraham, as he did to Jesus, so that our passion on earth, whatever form it takes for us individually, may lead us to the glory of resurrection (cf. Preface for 2d Sunday of Lent).