Second Sunday in Lent – March 4, 2012 – St John’s
It is only natural that we shrink from the idea that God could ever have commanded what he is said to have commanded Abraham to do: sacrifice his own son. But we have to see this story in its literary context; one scholar calls it “a masterpiece: presenting God as the Lord whose demands are absolute, whose will is inscrutable, and whose final word is grace.” The entire story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis is a story of trials, of tests, and this is the tenth and greatest of them. It is Isaac, his beloved son, the one in whom God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, whom Abraham must sacrifice. In sacrificing Isaac Abraham must sacrifice himself and the great future God had promised him. This trial requires Abraham to have enough faith to surrender all he had believed till now: faith enough to abandon faith.
Because he remained faithful, Abraham was spared that ordeal, and became a great exemplar of faith as described in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac; he who had received the promises was ready to sacrifice his only son, of whom it had been said, ‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be called.’ Abraham reasoned that God was able to raise from the dead, and so he received Isaac back as a symbol” (Hb 11:17-19). The whole story is read by Christians as a symbol of the other great drama that we celebrate today and at every Mass. For, as St. Paul tells us in our second reading, what God spared Abraham he did not spare himself: “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 give us everything else along with him?” When his ministry brought Christ hostility and eventually condemnation, God did not rescue him miraculously, but allowed the evil of his captors to continue, and inspired in Christ the love, fidelity and obedience that have won our redemption. This is the beloved Son to whom we are told in today’s Gospel we must listen.
These readings center us again on what is central in Christianity: on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A kind of transfiguration is required in us in order to appreciate the wisdom and power that St. Paul elsewhere said were embodied in Christ. A philosopher might call it a “transvaluation of values,” which is a fancy way of saying that the scale of values is turned upside-down, as the evil of the Cross is transfigured by the good of Christ’s faithful love, as it becomes the source of the new life that burst forth on Easter morning. The great symbol of this, of course, is the cross. We do not gather under a cross; we do not hang crosses in our houses; we do not sign ourselves with the cross, because we see it simply as an instrument of execution or as a reminder of Christ’s sufferings. We venerate the cross because it is the symbol of his love, because we see in his outstretched arms the longed-for welcoming embrace of God’s forgiveness.
Think of one of our eucharistic acclamations: “Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life.” How easy it is to say or sing this! But do we take it in? Do we believe it? Do we act as if it were true? Does it comfort us, give us hope, when we encounter evil? When we are not spared evil–evil even as great as the one with which Abraham was confronted, even as great as the one Christ met and conquered–when we are not spared evil, do such words call to mind the God whose Son was not spared evil? Do they inspire the faith and hope that if this God is for us, who can be against us, that if he has not spared his own Son, he has given all we could ever need, in Christ and with Christ? Questions with which to take our Lent seriously, so that we can experience Easter as the wonder that it is.