Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18 | Ps 116 | Rom 8:31b-34 | Mk 9:2-10
For many people, today’s first reading is just too hard to believe. How could God ask something so terrible of a parent: to sacrifice their only son? Reading such passages, many people conclude that the God of the Old Testament is nothing but a cruel and vicious tyrant, as though the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New. However, let’s step back and take a look at what life was like when Abraham lived.
Much to our horror, human sacrifice was common in Old Testament times. It was not unusual for many pagan cultures to sacrifice their children in hopes of appeasing their idols. Though it stuns us to hear God demand something so terrible, it would not necessarily have been a shock to Abraham, as he would have seen it taking place in the cultures around him.
However, that’s not to say it was easy for Abraham to obey God’s command. We can only imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind when God told him to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. Was he angry that God would ask so much of him? Did he wonder what good killing the boy could do? Whatever may have been going through his mind, Abraham was determined to obey God’s command with total trust that, if God was asking him to do it, He must have had a good reason.
God rewards Abraham’s heroic faith and obedience by sparing his son and declaring that he will be the father of many nations.
Many people think that God is cruel for requiring so much of Abraham. But consider this: while God spared Isaac by substituting a ram in his place, He did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to death for us. For Abraham, God sent an angel to stop the sacrifice, but when it came to God the Father, Himself, the wood was in place, the altar of the cross was prepared, and there was no angel to stop that sacrifice. What we most fear, life’s greatest loss, the death of a child, is exactly the price God was willing to pay to save us from our sins and to hold out for us the gift of everlasting life. God loved us so much, that He was willing to do the unthinkable to ransom us from the power of death.
If God the Father can be moved by our suffering, how much more was He troubled by the suffering of His own Son? And yet He allowed it to happen out of love for us.
In fact, this could be the reason that God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, so that we could have some perspective on the price He was willing to pay to save us.
If it is hard for us to relate to what God the Father would have felt at Jesus’ crucifixion, we can certainly relate to Jesus’ own suffering. Just before He was handed over to the Roman authorities, the Bible tells us that the agony he felt was so intense that he sweat blood. Jesus felt real pain and suffered real torment throughout his crucifixion.
The knowledge that he would soon rise from the dead didn’t make his agony any easier. And yet he accepted such a cruel death out of love for us.
Every second Sunday of Lent, the Church reflects on the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. The custom of reading today’s Gospel near the beginning of Lent came from an ancient tradition which held that the Transfiguration took place forty days before Good Friday. In the presence of his three closest disciples, Jesus’ glory as the Son of God shines through his human nature, and God the Father’s voice is heard booming from the heavens: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!”
We reflect on this story at this point every year during our Lenten journey so that we can be reminded (early on) that, when we embrace sacrifice and suffering, the power of God can shine through us. Saint Paul tells us in the letter to the Romans that the sufferings of the present are as nothing compared to the glory which will be ours in Christ. When we accept our suffering with love and trust, we become more like Jesus. Not that we’re masochists or somehow seek it out; we don’t. In fact, we should strive to prevent every form of suffering. But when suffering is unavoidable, when it becomes a reality within our lives (or that of a loved one) we see it through a different lens. God didn’t come to do away with suffering, or even come to explain it; but came to fill it with His presence.
For this reason (to a certain degree) we might even rejoice in some of the trials we face, because faith teaches us that our difficulties are transforming us more and more into the image and likeness of Christ, the One sent to save us.
At this altar, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross will be re-presented to us. Along with the bread and wine we offer for the sacrifice, Jesus is calling us to offer our very selves. He is challenging us to trust God enough to give Him everything we have, and everything we are, in perfect and absolute trust. We are given the opportunity to unite our sufferings to those of the cross.
If we do, then we will see our lives changed along with the bread and the wine, and we will bring God’s love to others, in ways we could never have imagined otherwise.