Discover what "binds" us to Jesus. The video of Fr. Joel's homily gives us insight into the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 22:1–2, 9a, 10–13, 15–18
The Abraham story we have just heard is one of the most troubling texts of all Scriptures, Old and New. In the Jewish tradition it is known as “The Binding of Isaac.” Having received the boy Isaac as his long-hoped-for son and heir, Abraham now receives instructions to make a whole burnt offering of him on a mountain God will point out to him. God is asking Abraham to take the one he loves and slaughter him. We ask ourselves is this the kind of God we have that demands obedience in such a harsh and cruel way? Is this the way God is? Who wants this kind of God? Why should God ask such a thing of a man to whom he has promised he will be a blessing for the nations.
In the struggle to find meaning in this story, neither the Jewish community nor the Christian one abandon the story. It remains. Our version today is a shortened one, but the story will come back to us at the Easter Vigil, of all places, in full length. That it appears today and at the Easter vigil already speaks to us of how to find its meaning. The rabbis in Jesus time had already worked with it. In their view Isaac is a willing victim for death. He joins his father Abraham in obeying God’s request. Isaac is a hero, a martyr. So today in the Jewish community, the story is a metaphor for all their suffering and persecution down the centuries. They have placed their hopes in God’s hands despite the seeming absence of God during their times of trial, during the holocausts the community has endured.
We hear echoes of the theme today in St. Paul when he says: “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?” Paul understands the Father to have let Jesus enter into the human world of death; he did not hold him back from this human experience. And the Father does this out of love for us. His Son joins us in death and the Father then stretches out his hand and raises his own Son out of death into life. Jesus is obedient to the Father’s desire to love us back to life and the Father in turn is obedient to his Son by being faithful to him.
Today’s Liturgy of the Word has two icons as it were. The one is the Binding of Isaac and the other is the transfiguration of Jesus. These are two powerful images and our eyes cannot help but pass back and forth from one to the other. They seem so different, so opposite from one another. But they share something in common. Both stories are about a father and son. And both stories are about the love of father and son. The poignancy of Abraham’s story is that he is being asked to let go of “his only son, the one whom he loves.” And on the mountain where Jesus stands, he hears a voice that identifies him as “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” Two fathers, two sons and both sons are headed for death and both fathers will not spare them from death, from a life robbed from them.
We might think that Jesus transfiguration is all about glory and divinity. But the story is surrounded by Jesus’ impending death. Just before this he has told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and be killed. He says that if they truly are his disciples, they too must take up a cross. On coming down from the mountain, Jesus tells Peter, James and John not speak of the vision with its transfiguration and brightness and voice from above until after he has been raised from death. Death comes up again on the way down from the mountain. There is no understanding the brightness and glory without death. And Moses and Elijah are conversing with Jesus. About what? About the journey that lies before him. In this journey he will complete and fulfill what the Torah and the prophets are all about. He will seal a new covenant in his blood.
What is behind the obedience of Abraham? Why does Abraham say yes to what is asked of him? Abraham surrenders the most precious thing God has given him, his son. This is his hope, this is his future. Yet he is willing in the face of what looks like an extreme absurdity to hand this back to the one who gave it to him. He is willing to engage in trust in the God who makes promises. When what looks like life and the future is taken from him, all he has is the word, the promise of the God who speaks such a word of promise.
In Jesus, God has his Son bound up by our inhumanity: betrayal, violence and condemned to death. In his Son, God himself shares in our binding. And then the Son entrusts himself into the hands of the Father. He lets the Father’s will work. And his will does work in the midst of our sin and death and it raises Jesus, as St. Paul’s says, to his right hand. God keeps his word. That is the heart of the mystery of Christ, the mystery on Mt. Tabor, the mystery the Father invites us to today: Listen to him.
Abraham’s story of obedience might and should shock us. Obedience reaches to the heart of self, it asks for self-surrender. Jesus’ obedience to the Father needs to shock us as well. He remained faithful to the Father walking into the power of death. All he had was the words: “You are my beloved son.”
And what about all the bindings in our lives, the bindings that have caused us anguish and questions over the last decades up to now: the Holocaust, nuclear destruction, racism that never seems to let go, the mistrust in institutions, gun violence. We struggle with all these and the deeply personal bindings as well, and there seems to be no answer. We can lose faith. Or like Abraham and Jesus, we can climb the mountain of Moriah and Calvary, and carrying the wood of our cross, we can join Jesus in trusting in the Father to the end. Then when having done that in faith, hope and love, we will know that the surrender of self opens up to the glory on the mountain of transfiguration.
Prior Fr. Joel Macul, OSB