Second Sunday of Lent

I always return to the story of Abraham and Isaac … the founder of the Western faiths … He was a visionary, a prophet … But despite this, Abraham's God decided to test him. He asked Abraham to make a sacrifice of his and Sarah's only child, lsaac, their miracle, who was born to them when Sarah was ninety years old and Abraham was one hundred. And … Abraham complied.

He did not ask what was wrong with a God who would demand such a thing, or question whether He was worth worshipping. He did not, so far as the Bible tells us, even beg for Isaac's life, as he had done for the people of Sodom. Abraham simply walked his child up Mount Moriah. I imagine he even made the boy carry the wood for the fire …

I have regarded for some years now the story of Abraham and Isaac a strange story, a grim tale of how a father would sacrifice his son to his own faith … What kind of a starting point is this for … all the Western faiths? … Why do we re-tell this story? Is it to remind us that every parent since has been better?

One of the thousand morals of the story of Abraham and Isaac is that … it is also a tale of survival and of mercy. In the end Abraham heard his God instruct him not to set his hand against his son … Isaac survived … He became a parent, blind to Jacob's defects, but one who, pointedly, attempted no sacrifices of his own.

So let us think of Isaac … the first son of the Western faiths - and think about the story that is told again and again. We hear it first as children, and repeat it throughout our lives. We tell it by way of apology and a warning. We tell it with some measure of hope. We tell it because we have all been the child, we have all been Isaac, and we know the part of the story that is never mentioned. For the Bible does not record Isaac's responses.

We do not know if he, like Jesus, asked, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" We do not know if he begged the way most of us would, for his life. We know only this: that he obeyed … That because he knew nothing else, he did as his father required. We know he allowed himself to be bound in rope. We know that he let his father lay him on the altar of pyramided firewood which together they had raised to God. We know he watched his father on the mountaintop raise the gleaming knife above his breastbone. We know … he was a child, the son of a man with a Big Idea, who in his longing and confusion, even in his final instant, could only look to his father with that eternal hope of love.

There seems some ambiguity regarding the image of God emerging from the Genesis reading which largely falls away when Abraham's near-sacrifice, is read in the light of New Testament texts. Paul in his letter to the Romans brings to a climax an argument for hope in the face of suffering. All this, rests upon the strong fidelity of God shown to us in such an extremity of love in giving up his only Son for us all, how could we think that God would stop there and not see us through to the fullness of salvation?

How could God abandon us 'half-way' to salvation, so to speak, or, after such sacrifice, let us fall out of the divine saving hand? What we should not fail to pick up is that Paul is careful in his formulation to echo the divine address to Abraham in Gen 22:16: 'Because you have done this, and been prepared not to spare your son, your only son ...' Paul, in other words, is suggesting that what God did not in the end require of Abraham (the sacrifice of his beloved only son, Isaac) God did, for love of us, in fact require of God self: the sacrifice of his only Son, Jesus Christ. Paul sees Abraham's confidence that 'God will provide' fulfilled beyond all human imagining in this exercise of divine love.

In the Gospel, on this Second Sunday of Lent, Mark's account of the Transfiguration (9:2-10), admirably completes the picture. There are many aspects to this scene but, in continuity with the theme emerging from the earlier readings, I think it is best to relate it closely to what Jesus has insisted upon in the episode just before (Mark 8:27-38). In response to Jesus' question, 'Who do you say that I am?', Peter has, correctly, confessed him to be the Christ.

But when Jesus went on to detail what kind of Messiah he will be - namely, one who will suffer and die in Jerusalem, working salvation by entering into the pain and suffering of this world, Peter protested, earning a sharp rebuke (Mark 8:29-38). In the Transfiguration itself, along with the witness of Elijah and Moses, the Father's voice affirms the true messianic status of Jesus: 'This is my Son, the Beloved', but goes on to add, 'Listen to him!' - listen, that is, to what he has been saying about going up to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Being God's 'beloved Son' does not exempt Jesus from suffering but in fact draws him to it as part of the divine plan. The disciples, and all of us, as we continue upon our Lenten journey, are invited to enter ever more deeply into this mysterious blend of divine love and suffering that lies at the heart of the Paschal Mystery.

In this long week end when we gather as family in prayer to break bread, may we bring our concerns as well as the many gifts. Some of us may be struggling with health issues; others with pain of a broken relationship, financial hardship or unemployment. Although we may feel helpless is such difficult situations, we can come to our God in a prayer full of hope, knowing that we have a merciful God whose love has no limit. May we pray especially that the whole world recognize the contribution of women to the development of society and may the Holy Spirit grant perseverance to those who suffer discrimination, persecution, or death for the name of Christ, particularly in Asia Pacific.

Gaetan Pereira
College Chaplain