The 2nd Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 116:10, 15-19
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:31-34
Gospel: According to St. Mark 9:2-10
St. Augustine wrote this about the relationship between the two halves of the Bible: “The New is hidden in the Old, and the Old is made manifest in the New.” What he meant was that there is not only a link between the Testaments, but that they literally help to reveal each other and that to fully understand one you need to know the other. For anyone who is familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac its link to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is somewhat obvious, but sometimes it is in the obvious that we can overlook that which is right in front of our eyes.
In the charming work The Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse has his most famous character, the brilliant valet Jeeves, hide a valuable 18th Century silver cow creamer (a small pitcher in the shape of a cow) as a hood ornament on the car of his clueless employer Bertie Wooster. This weekend’s readings combine in a very serious and profound manner both the adage of St. Augustine and the ‘hidden in plain sight’ nature of the cow creamer.
The link between God the Father and Abraham on the one hand and Jesus and Isaac on the other is made obviously apparent when the two stories are put side by side, but in this weekend’s readings the use of the story of the Transfiguration points to a more subtle relationship with the events in Chapter 22 of Genesis. The connection is so subtle in fact that it focuses on one simple line from St. Mark’s Gospel: “This is my beloved Son.”
To connect that statement by the Father and to transport it back to the time of Abraham is to see exactly how the Father must have felt in the sacrifice of His Son on the Cross.
When God tells Abraham, “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and … offer him up as a holocaust,” He knew – because He knows all things – that His only Son, Whom He loved, would be offered up as a holocaust on Good Friday. God knew the devastating effect that this command would have on Abraham.
It is never good for us to assume that human feelings have an equivalent place in the life of the Divine. For example, we cause great theological difficulties when we want to say that people are punished because God is mad at them or that they are rewarded because God is pleased with them. This is an inappropriate transference of human feelings onto God.
But it can be helpful for us to ponder situations where God must most surely feel great empathy with our difficulties. The last thing that we want to imagine is a God who is indifferent to our suffering and our troubles, and it seems that the story of Abraham and Isaac can reveal a God who is not the unfeeling demiurge of the Deists but instead the loving God who weeps at the tomb of Lazarus.
In one sense, if the story of Abraham and Isaac is truly to remind us of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, then God must allow the knife to fall and Isaac must be sacrificed. But in the way that the story actually plays out we learn a much more important lesson – God knew as a Father the devastating effect that the sacrifice of Isaac would have on Abraham, and so He sent an angel (“messenger” in our translation, but its equivalent, angelos, in the Greek) to stay Abraham’s hand. Was this an act of compassion from one Father to another father? Did God, knowing that He could not save His own Son, choose to do what was necessary to spare the son of another?
Finally, it seems possible that the great lesson from the story of Abraham and Isaac is not how much He loved Abraham, but just how much God loves all of us. In not staying the hand that killed Jesus the Father took all of the grief that Abraham would have felt plus all of the grief of the entire human family into Himself. To see this sacrifice of the Son as also a sacrifice of the Father is to see for the first time what has been hidden in plain sight for all time.