Our family Bible was an illustrated one; as a child I didn’t do much more with it than look at the pictures, and maybe when a little older read the story of Susannah and the elders in the book of Daniel with concupiscent focus and wonder. But I do remember that the picture of Abraham and Isaac caught my attention; I’m sure I asked my mother, who had been raised a Methodist and therefore had some knowledge of Bible stories, what was going on there. And what I saw in Abraham’s face was not a question about what he was about to do, but the duplicity of lying to his son about the purpose of their journey, a bone-chilling portrait of the possibility that a father, and therefore anyone, cannot be trusted.
The Abraham-Isaac story doesn’t fare well in much contemporary theological literature. It takes its place in the pantheon of non-violence, perhaps, as the story of a substitution sacrifice, or perhaps the repudiation by Israel of the child sacrifice practices of their neighbors to the Baals. There is some evidence that child sacrifice might even have played some part in the worship of Israel at times in their early history. But substitution sacrifice isn’t convincing everyone any more either. As Crossan has so convincingly pointed out in his treatment of the subject, even today we (appropriately) describe the death of a fireman who goes into a burning house to save its occupants as a sacrifice, that is to say, the fireman has done a holy thing (sacrum + facere, to do or make holy). But no one today, and he insists that this is true among the ancients as well, would suggest that God (the holy) demanded the life of the fireman in exchange for the life of someone inside the burning building. As absurd as that possibility sounds, much of traditional redemption theology is based on exactly that equation. So let’s not examine the Abraham-Isaac story as a prefigurement of substitution sacrifice, in which God made Jesus die so that the rest of us wouldn’t have to. The truth of the matter is, we all have to die anyway.
And we are, after all, dealing with centuries of redaction, translation, and interpretation. I guess that the best I can say, the best I can figure out for myself, is that the story illustrates in a graphic and primitive way the faith that Abraham had in God’s promise that through Isaac, his "offspring," his family would be “as numerous as the stars.” In other words, even this monstrous idea that he was being asked to murder his son, the very idea of whose birth made his wife laugh with incredulity, could not deter his faith that God would keep that promise somehow, and that in some way unknown to him Isaac would live and be the start of a great clan. Nothing can deter Abraham’s faith in God as God of the living; he risks all that he has that God will be true to God’s word.
So in the second reading, from St. Paul’s magnificent letter to the Romans, he asks the question, “He who did not spare his own son but offered him up for us all, how will he not give us everything else along with him?” I can’t help but consider this thought: God believes in us, like Abraham believed in God. God risks everything believing that we will join in the covenant of life, or in Christ’s words, “repent and believe in the gospel.” When we crushed Jesus in our avarice and thirst for power in this life, Jesus breathes the Spirit of God upon the world with his last breath, surrendering the Spirit of christos-messiah to all who will believe in the way. The universe waits for the day when our word will "stay the hand of God" so that God’s innocent children will no longer die at our hands in the marginalized and weak, and we will all "walk in the presence of God in the land of the living."
Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne this Sunday:
Gathering: Lead Us to the Water (Kendzia, OCP) Keeping the baptismal character of Lent before us all, at least in the music, I chose to use the same opening song and penitential rite for these first two Sundays of Lent. For the next three Sundays, the character of the Scrutinies and their accompanying readings from cycle A will help carry the load, hopefully inviting the preaching to follow.
(Hey, a guy can dream, right?)
Psalm 116: I Will Walk in the Presence of God (music by Gary Daigle, GIA).
Preparation: Covenant Hymn
Communion: Mercy, O God (Francis O'Brien, GIA)
Recessional: Jerusalem, My Destiny (Rory Cooney, verse 2)
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?