This Sunday’s Mass readings present us with what appear to be opposite types of messages or moods – our first reading from Genesis about the offering of Isaac by Abraham as a sacrifice to God, and the Gospel of Mark’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. We might distinguish between them as ‘dark and unsettling’ to ‘light and uplifting’.
Certainly the account of Abraham taking his only son up Mt. Moriah to offer him as a sacrifice at the direction of God upsets and disturbs our modern sensibilities. We might find ourselves even thinking that this is an exercise in cruelty, questioning God’s motives in this particular call to Abraham – yet it is actually a lesson in God’s Providence, Mercy and care; it is one in a series of small steps in which God reveals Himself, and His will, steps that will eventually reconcile all humanity to Himself, through His Son, Jesus. But God knows how human nature cannot handle abrupt and sudden change – He has to gradually make His will known over time and in many circumstances, thoughout all of salvation history. That’s why we have to look at this story in its context.
This episode in Abraham’s life is before there is a Jewish nation, before there is the Law of Moses, before we have any kind of a sense of Judeo-Christian morality. This story takes place in the land of Canaan, a land where the population worshipped a number of pagan gods and idols. Among these was a god named Molech, and most notoriously, part of worship of this pagan god, was human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of children. This was seen as normal in the culture and time. Abraham would have seen this, whether he agreed with it, liked it or not, as a ‘normal’ part of the culture in which he lived.
Yet God, moves into this setting, speaking to Abraham, and asking Abraham nothing less and nothing more than the pagan Canaanites believed is pleasing to their idols. For Abraham, God asking him for the sacrifice of his son Isaac makes perfect sense, and so as a show of complete faith in this God who has begun to reveal Himself to Abraham, he complies.
And we know how the story continues; that at the moment Abraham is prepared to strike, God stops him, so that no harm comes to Isaac. God even provides a ram as a substitute for Abraham, again in a culture where sacrifice of living things makes some sense. Yet in this action, God has shown that human sacrifice is not what He wants, and this is a step in revealing the difference between the God of Abraham, and the pagan gods; He is a God who is involved, who speaks, who reveals Himself, and who is merciful and loving. The pagan gods never stopped anyone from sacrificing their child to them; yet the God of Abraham does just that. When a human is set to follow worldly wisdom, Divinity shows them otherwise.
Contrast that with our Gospel; we see Jesus, transfigured on Mt. Tabor with his closest friends present; He reveals His Divinity, appearing in glory with Moses and Elijah; Jesus appearing as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, completing God’s plan. He provides a preview of what His disciples can expect, to be drawn into His Divinity – He shows what awaits those who seek, follow and serve Him. Yet this episode concludes with Him talking about rising from the dead; He will have to suffer and die to take upon Himself the sin of all humankind – to atone for our separation from God; God will offer His only Son, and the Son will willingly offer Himself for all humanity. Yet in this part of the drama, when the Son is being offered up, during His Passion , there will be no human who will stop the harm being visited upon Jesus.
We see the contrast; God who enters into Abraham’s cultural reality to lead him to a better understanding of His will, and is judged by us to be cruel and heartless even though He prevents Isaac from being harmed. Yet when God’s Son Jesus is the One being offered up, humanity does not return the favour, and we give ourselves a pass. Even though it is for our broken relationship with God and each other that Jesus offers Himself willingly.
It is a drama which is played out day, after day, after day in our own time, and in our own lives. God offers the gift of His Glory through His Son Jesus to each and every one of us; and every time we neglect our brothers and sisters, every time we ignore the needs of the poor in our midst, every time we respond to others with anger, malice, cruelty or contempt, we visit harm on the Body of Jesus.
This in a culture that, according to modern media and the internet, is apparently more concerned with the colour of a dress than with the abduction of hundreds of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Middle East and Africa; a culture that is more interested in the theft of an Oscar gala dress than in the killing ,maiming and displacement of thousands of Christians in Iraq and Syria. What right does a culture like that have to presume to judge the One True God, who desires only to reconcile all people to Himself, in harmony and unity as we were meant to be?
God speaks to each of us all the time, particularly in His Sacred Word. These readings are God’s invitation to each of us, especially during this season of Lent, to reflect on our own lives, to see where we have harmed the Body of Christ in our own way, and to seek ways to build up that Body and strengthen our own relationship with God and with each other.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!