Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

February 28, 2021
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Psalm 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19
Romans 8:31b-34
Mark 9:2-10

“Abraham, Abraham … take your son Isaac, whom you love … go to the land of Moriah and on a height that I will show you, you shall offer him up as a sacrifice … you shall slaughter him.”  What kind of God would make such a demand?  How could God want such a thing?  Isn’t God wise and loving, not whimsical, vengeful and blood-thirsty?  This misses the point that Abraham was ready to kill his son because he lived in a culture of death in which life was cheap and children were expendable. The request is made by God not to torment the innocent but to put an end to all human sacrifice and replace the culture of death with the new life of grace by sacrificing His own Son, Jesus.

Human sacrifice to pagan idols was very common at the time and in the part of the world in which Abraham lived.  As God’s revelation to Abraham is an event that occurs very early in salvation history, God is gradually and deliberately entering the vision of human beings that had been obscured and darkened after the commission of the original sin in the Garden of Eden.

Abraham had accepted God’s call and let God take over his life from the time he became aware of God.  Abraham left his ancestral home, his tribe, and his tribal gods to follow God, a divinity previously unknown to him.  Abraham presumed that God was just like the other tribal gods and pagan idols that he had known before God revealed Himself as the one true God.  Abraham had trusted God’s promise to make him a father to many, but this promise seemed to fade with increasing age.  Now the demand for him to sacrifice his son Isaac seemed to break God’s promise to Abraham and cancel the covenant between them.  It certainly shattered his own spirit because Abraham simply judged that God was like the other pagan divinities that used human beings for themselves.

The initial command of God to Abraham to take Isaac into the wilderness to sacrifice him manifests the grave effects of original sin that so disordered humanity that human sacrifice appeared as something desirable by God as it was demanded by the false gods and idols.  It also makes known that God has a broader and eternal horizon for Abraham to become the father of many than the limited vision that Abraham had for the security of his own future.

Our first reading also makes known the extent of God’s love when God sends the angel to stop Abraham’s hand from completing the slaughter of Isaac.  What will come to be fully revealed in the life, suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus is that God has given His own Son to take the place of Isaac to provide a fitting sacrifice to pay the debt of sin, and to heal the grave wound in the relationship between God and human beings self-inflicted by human beings through disobedience and sin.

Isaac had been valued more by Abraham and Sarah than their fidelity to God and God’s generosity bringing Isaac into being.  Abraham and Sarah had forgotten that Isaac is the start of the covenantal promise made by God to Abraham.  They had ignored that God had bigger plans for Isaac than they had for Isaac.  Abraham and Sarah had valued Isaac as an extension of themselves, he had become their legacy in their minds and not their son entrusted to them by God.  Isaac belongs to God even before he belongs to Abraham and Sarah.  In a sense, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his ownership of Isaac, but not Isaac.

It is important for us to remember what has preceded this story from our first reading.  After God has made his promise to Abraham that he will have descendants as countless as the stars, a miracle when you consider the advanced age of Sarah as well as of Abraham, some time passes before Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac. 

Abraham and Sarah have longed for children for their own survival and flourishing.  They grow impatient waiting for God to act.  Sarah suggests to Abraham that her Egyptian maidservant Hagar could serve as a surrogate mother to bear them a son.  Hagar does this and she gives birth to Ishmael, the son of Abraham.  After this, Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac — soon thereafter Sarah convinces Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness so as not to be a threat to her and to Isaac.  Abraham views both Hagar and Ishmael as expendable, and they are valued only when they are useful to Abraham on his terms.  Abraham is the father of Ishmael.  Abraham is the father of Isaac.  God is the Father of Jesus, His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased. 

God shows and begins to reveal his love whereby He unveils the salvation of Abraham, our father in faith, and the salvation of every human being as His priority in the gift and sacrifice of His own Son, Jesus Christ.  God is so loving that He gives His own Son selflessly and delights in Jesus for His own sake and not for any selfish interest.  Jesus willingly and freely takes the place of Isaac as the lamb of sacrifice and simultaneously as the priest offering, that sacrifice that atones for sin that is so radically offensive to God.  Sin is the offense that makes our private interests become our own selfish priorities placed before the love of God. The Sacrifice of Jesus opens humanity to an eternal and hopeful horizon beyond the limited horizon of private desires.

The new and eternal Covenant of Christ, and the first covenant with Abraham, and the sacramental covenant of Matrimony each require that God remain central to the focus of those bound by each covenant. 

Just as Abraham and Sarah grew impatient with God and tried to live the covenant on their own terms by introducing Hagar into the Covenant, thereby placing their will before God’s plan, so also many times husbands and wives grow impatient with God in awaiting the gift of children in their marriage and introduce IVF or surrogacy.  Likewise, on the other hand, husbands and wives might become fearful of the interruption of their own plans by the arrival of children into their lives and introduce artificial contraception into their marriage for their own purposes.   These practices become barriers between husbands and wives because they are first barriers between the couple and God. 

The covenantal aspects of being a father and of being a mother are first directed to God and exercised through the responsibilities to children.  Without the priority of God in the lives of fathers and mothers, it becomes impossible for fathers and mothers to accept that their children belong to God even more than to themselves.  God loves their children even more than they do.  Without God as the center of their lives, selfish priorities of worldly success will replace God as a false idol. The covenant between fathers and mothers with their children soon becomes reduced to only a contract of property whereby the children come to be treated by their parents as extensions of themselves and as decorations, treasured but not loved as human beings.

Lent is a time of conversion.  It is a time to allow grace to restore God as the center and priority of all covenantal relationships in our lives — the covenantal relationship of Baptism, the covenantal relationship of Matrimony, the covenantal relationship of human society.  God is the center of all covenantal relationships — the covenant entered with Abraham, the covenant continued in Isaac, the covenant formed with Moses and all the prophets.  God is fully the center of the new and Eternal Covenant realized in Jesus Christ and continued in the sacramental life of the Church.  

The covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, is not about settling for something less than the priority of the Eternal God.  Settling for anything less than God is a form of idolatry.  Abraham did not settle but journeyed forth in faith.  We who are his children in faith are called to a similar journey.  We who are baptized into the faith of the Apostles including Peter, James, and John, are called to accompany them in listening to Jesus and following Him down from the summit of Mount Tabor to the height of Calvary.  He is the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased.

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