Father Donald Senior, CP

Feb. 25: Second Sunday of Lent

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Awesomely transcendent, infinitely tender

Gn 22:1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18; Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Rom 8:31-34; Mk 9:2-10.

In the readings for today we encounter two of the most dramatic passages in the entire Bible: the sacrifice of Isaac from the Book of Genesis and the Transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. 

The gripping account of Abraham’s fidelity to God, even at the possible cost of sacrificing his beloved son Isaac, has been pondered by both Jewish and Christian tradition for centuries. At the heart of the story is a terrible dilemma. Would God ask Abraham to actually kill his own son to demonstrate his faithfulness?  

Some historians suggest that the original point of this story was to discourage child sacrifice by seeming to have God require this but then to emphatically forbid it when the moment comes: “Do not lay your hand on the boy. … Do not do the least thing to him,” God’s messenger calls out to Abraham. In Jeremiah 19:5, the prophet also rejects the pagan practice of child sacrifice, quoting God as saying “it never entered my mind” to do so.

Neither Jewish nor Christian tradition have emphasized this point. For Judaism, Abraham is the model of obedience to God and a foretaste of how the people Israel should be faithful to God’s law as the descendants of Abraham. This story, known in Hebrew as the Akedah or “binding” of Isaac, reveals the depth of Abraham’s trust in God. In Christian tradition, the faith of Abraham, so tested in this event, is also seen as exemplary.  

But Paul and other Christian writers pick up another part of the story — the part where God blesses Abraham for his great faith and promises that his descendants will be “as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. … in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” Paul refers to this text in affirming that God’s love embraces not only his people Israel but extends also to the Gentiles, the “nations of the earth.” 

Abraham is considered the “father of many nations” and a sign that even before the giving of the Jewish law, God’s embraces all peoples. It will be another “beloved son,” Jesus himself, who will bring that message to the world.

The Gospel for today is Mark’s version of the Transfiguration, a scene also found in Matthew and Luke. This mysterious visionary event takes place as Jesus and his disciples are about to embark on their fateful journey to Jerusalem when Jesus will meet his destiny. As if to prepare the disciples for the extreme test they will face in Jerusalem, the veil is drawn away and the three disciples, Peter, James and John, are able to view Jesus in the brilliance of his divine glory. 

This Gospel scene is filled with symbolism. It takes place on a high mountain that is surrounded by a great cloud, recalling the dramatic giving of the Law at Sinai. Present are Moses, the great leader of Israel, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. As so often happens in Mark’s account, Peter and the disciples are thoroughly confused. Peter wants to honor this moment but, as the Gospel notes, “He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.”  

The point of the story comes with the heavenly voice (a euphemism for God’s own voice) that declares: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Yes, listen to Jesus as he repeatedly teaches his disciples on this journey the hard lesson that in the measure one is willing to give life away, life will be found. 

In both these striking biblical passages there is a glimpse of the awesome and mysterious power of God coupled with the power of human love, especially the love of a parent for their beloved child. One biblical scholar states that the God of the Bible is both awesomely transcendent and infinitely tender. In both these challenging biblical stories we hear today, a “beloved” child is threatened with death — Isaac and Jesus — but more powerful than the threat of death is the overwhelming love of God for us.




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