When Father Richard Leonard S.J, wrote his famous book, “Where the Hell is God?” he begins by telling us the tragic story of his sister Tracey becoming a paraplegic, following a vehicle accident. In an attempt to comfort him, some person suggested that God might be testing his faith during this difficult time. Fr. Richard then tells us, that he realized he couldn’t believe in God who would send pain and suffering as a test of his love and faithfulness. But his question was, “why is God in the middle of all this chaos?” While he acknowledged that this was a very testing time, it was more about keeping God close amid all the stress and confusion.
The story of Abraham being asked to deliberately sacrifice someone he loved, more than his own life, is really horrifying. It is vital to keep in mind that it is, after all, God who is the one stopping the hand of Abraham. In fact, this incident is a foretaste of what God alone proposes to do to save humanity. For out of astounding love and faithfulness to us who were not worthy, God the father did not even spare his only son Jesus –in order to save everyone.
In times of uncertainty and upheaval, we often get flooded with questions that don’t always have an easy answer, or perhaps we are in such a state of mind that no explanation makes sense at the time. When we are looking for causes and solutions, we sometimes look to allocate blame and sometimes God is in the firing line.
Why would God do this? What does God want from me? Have we made God responsible for all that is good, and therefore also all that is bad in the world? What happens to us if we don’t pass the test? How can we proclaim God as loving and kind and yet would make us go through agony just to see if we really love Him? There are so many questions that arise in our minds if we accept that God imposes suffering in our lives. But what if God is not the cause but the consolation, the comforter in time of suffering?
When we hear the story of Abraham and Isaac in today’s first reading we are understandably shocked. What we find most disturbing is the image of God that comes across. What God appears to be asking of Abraham is so cruel and unjust. We are revolted by the idea that the elderly Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac.
The aim of the story is supposed to evoke horror at the very idea that God would demand human sacrifice. It is the very opposite of our first impression. Abraham lived among the Canaanites who practiced human sacrifice, so Abraham somehow got the idea that this is what God wanted. And what this story was telling us, as the Jewish teachers taught consistently from this moment on, that every life is sacred, that no human life should be taken, even for the sake of worshipping God. We live in a time today when many nations give rise to people who say, “It is my choice,” and are destroying children and families and even try to find an excuse for taking human life. God says, “All life is sacred.”
This story was meant to put an end to seeking pain and suffering as proof of our love for God. Because God’s love is so profound that he is willing to sacrifice himself in love, in order to save us all. And it is the Father and the Son united who willingly sacrifice so much for us. God spares nothing and goes to the ultimate length to share complete solidarity with us.
What Jesus made very clear was that God does not meet out hurt for hurt, pain for pain, life for life, but this was not really understood by those who lived in Old Testament times.
One thing the story clearly tells us is the depth of Abraham’s faith. He was prepared to sacrifice that which was dearest to him. His extraordinary faith was rewarded in an extraordinary way. No wonder we call Abraham “our father in faith”.
The story condemns the idea of honoring God by taking a life. But Jesus introduced something that is much more challenging; the idea of honoring God by giving our lives in the service of God and others. He set the example himself. God didn’t demand his life from him. He gave it freely in the service of his brothers and sisters. You and me.
It is this very point that Paul is making to the Romans when he says, that with God on our side we can face anything. Even as Jesus must have sensed that in going to Jerusalem a violent death awaited him, he must have reflected on what he heard on the Mount of Transfiguration ‘You are my Son, the beloved: I am pleased with you’. This assurance would have given him the strength to face the future, whatever it held.
To know that nothing can separate us from the love of God, revealed in Jesus, is our strength in time of weakness and our hope in time of trouble.
In life and death, in joy and devastation, God gives us everything he has. God holds nothing back. It is impossible to truly understand the depths of this unmerited love and commitment that God has given to us.
This Sunday we hear of Abraham and of the Transfiguration story. Despite its vividness, the drama and even the horror of Isaac’s near-sacrifice – the main point of this passage – is that Abraham’s faith in God is utterly complete. Abraham, in his journey of faith, has learnt utter trust in God’s promises. Abraham and Isaac’s unswerving obedience to God, and trust in God’s faithfulness and particularly trust that God will provide, is a foreshadowing of the absolute generosity, faithfulness, sacrifice and love that God the Father, and the Son show for the world.
Abraham and his sacrifice is a proto-type for Christ’s death for us on the cross, the comparisons are deep. Abraham’s beloved son even carries the wood of his own sacrifice. Jesus carries the wood of his own cross for his sacrifice. A ram is found caught in thorns, and replaced Isaac as the sacrifice. Jesus is crowned with thorns. Abraham goes to mount Moriah for the sacrifice, this place would later be known as the city of Jerusalem. Our Lord offers his life in Jerusalem. and so on. Only God would give up so much out of love, to save us.
Peter, James, and John also find deeper faith on the mountain: They see Jesus as he truly is, in his full glory. These scenes give us a taste of Easter glory to come and challenge us to believe that Jesus is truly and completely everything he says he is.
Even the disciples didn’t always or fully see Jesus clearly, and this is so, even though they had the singular benefit of being with him all the time. Did they become so familiar with him, that they occasionally stopped seeing him, stopped learning from him, and took him for granted, or projected onto him their expectations, instead of being open to what he truly was offering.
In lent, let us take some time to try and see Jesus more clearly. Let us not allow familiarity to obscure his glory and his challenging message.
We all need a transfiguration of our image of God once in a while to ensure we see God more clearly. May this season of Lent ensure that we are not fashioning God according to our convenience, or according to our own image and likeness, but rather encountering God in Jesus in the fullness of his radical message.
Can we, like Abraham, put our complete and utter trust in God. Trust God even when we don’t understand the meaning of what might be happening to us at any different moment of our lives. Will we trust utterly in Christ and be humble and completely obedient to his vision.
Lent is about removing obstacles to our faith but also about choosing to let Jesus be the meaning of our lives. Let us walk in the light of the Lord.
And, Just as Jesus is transfigured, may we be changed.