1 Mar 2015
“Then God said: ‘Take your son Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust ...’” (Gen. 22:2) In the name …
You know how sometimes weird things can stick in your memory? Well, the story of Abraham and Isaac is one of those for me. I have no idea how old I was, but I remember seeing in a picture-Bible a drawing of this story. Probably not unlike the one on today’s Song Sheet. I can even now still remember thinking to myself as a child that Abraham must be a bad man. I think that memory stuck in my head because once I read the story I must have been startled by the fact that God was holding him up as a paradigm of faithfulness. I think that child’s intuition carries forward, and I imagine that even a lot of adults have qualms with the story of Isaac’s sacrifice. No matter how much we try to sugarcoat it by saying that God stopped the killing at the last minute, I think many people of faith are still bothered, if not angered, by this story.
We need to remember that Abraham is an old man and his wife Sarah is an old woman. They are childless until very late in life when God promises them a son. There will be no other. This is the child, who when addressing Abraham, God refers to in today’s reading as: “your only son, [the one] whom you love.” We should also note that Sarah is not a party to this plan. Abraham doesn’t tell his wife or even his son Isaac what God intends for him to do. Feminist theologians write that Abraham couldn’t have told Sarah about the plan to sacrifice their son because Sarah would have sacrificed Abraham before she would ever let him kill Isaac! They argue that from a male perspective this may have been a test of Abraham’s faithfulness as obedience, but from a mother’s perspective this would have been a test of faithfulness as love. Sarah would not have simply complied. Sarah would have asked what kind of a god gives a child and then orders him killed by a parent. Sarah wouldn’t look at it as a test of faith to be followed through no matter what, and look at all the trouble that kind of obedience has got us into throughout history. She would have seen it as a test of love as to whether she would even face down the Almighty to protect her child.
I think there is a lot of merit in this scenario. We can say that God held Abraham’s hand at the last second, but unless Abraham and Isaac, and for that matter even God Himself, are only cardboard cut-outs, there would have to be psychological consequences to this test of faith that would never disappear. Could Abraham ever be the same after putting the blade to his own child’s throat? Could Sarah ever love him after she discovered his secret? Could Isaac ever trust his father? Could God not be affected by all that He had forced upon this family, and how would this family look upon God?
We have a baptism after Mass this morning. A beautiful child for whom the snowstorms stopped for this one Sunday morning. Don’t hear today’s story as only Abraham and Isaac from long ago. See it through the example of a father and mother who today have come to church to bring their child to God. In their context, isn’t Sarah’s test of faith as motherly love much more holy than Abraham’s blind obedience? And before we answer that question, let’s add in the story of Abraham’s walk with God. Genesis 18 tells us about God’s promise to grant Abraham and Sarah a son. Isaac is then born in chapter 21, and chapter 22 tells us about the sacrifice as a test of faith. Right in the middle of that mix though is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God walks with Abraham and reveals that He is about to destroy those two cities. Abraham doesn’t just accept this judgment. He barters with God. Suppose there are 50, then 45, 40, 30, 20, all the way down to10 innocent people in those cities, says Abraham, will you still destroy them? And God promises to refrain. Abraham challenged God about Sodom and Gomorrah, but said nothing about Isaac? So is Sarah’s test of love all that unthinkable as an alternative to Abraham’s silent submission? I don’t think so.
And if Abraham is depicted as so caring in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, more like Sarah than a knife-wielding, obedienced-crazed father, can’t we also ask if God has a Sarah-side to Him too? This isn’t blasphemy because God is not male or female. We have to use these designations of gender because we need to have some way of speaking about the nature of God, but God is no more a physical man than He is a woman. God is God. And mystics through the centuries have referred to God not only as Father, but also as Mother when speaking of God’s compassion and creativity. With this in mind I would like to translate the story of Isaac’s sacrifice to that of Jesus’ cross. The purpose of today’s story of the Transfiguration is to give proof of Jesus’ divinity before the cross. The resurrection will prove it after the cross, but the Transfiguration reminds us that the glory of God was always there. When Jesus goes to the cross, says the Transfiguration, God submits to the whole experience.
This obviously means that God in Jesus knows personally the physical, emotional and psychological ordeal that is human death. But there’s another component of the ordeal of death that we don’t discuss as often. When Jesus screams in desperation from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” God is on the other end of the cry. God in heaven is in a position to intervene, but unlike with Abraham and Isaac, this time He does not. I don’t see the cross as God sacrificing Jesus, like Abraham was prepared to do with Isaac. I see in it the final testimony of Jesus’ human life. When God in heaven doesn’t answer Jesus’ cry, God feels what it is to be helpless. This is the compassion expressed in the idea of God as mother, as like Sarah. Anyone sitting in a hospital room watching a loved one knows what God as mother felt. Lent is not only about the suffering of Jesus’ death as one of us. It’s also about the suffering of helplessness experienced by God almighty. What Abraham, as severe and unimaginable a test as it was, did not have to endure, God in heaven did. This speaks to the depth of God’s love for each of us, a love that deserves our love in return. May this Lent help us to better appreciate the Saviour and the God whom we worship. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo