The word mystery, among its several meanings, may refer to a religious truth that is known by revelation and is not fully understood by reason alone. The readings for the Second Sunday of Lent highlight Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son and confront us with the mystery of his death on the cross. They situate Jesus’ saving death in the context of God’s covenant with Israel through Abraham and Isaac. The mystery here concerns why and how our redemption took place through the sacrificial death of God’s beloved Son.
The beginning of God’s covenant relationship with Israel as a people comes with Abraham, our father in faith. Why that title is appropriate becomes clear in today’s reading from Genesis 22, known as The Binding (aqedah in Hebrew) of Isaac. In Genesis 12 God calls Abraham from his homeland and promises to make him into a great nation. In Genesis 17 God confirms this promise in terms of a formal covenant relationship and stipulates that this promise will be fulfilled through Isaac, the offspring of Abraham and Sarah in their old age. But in Genesis 22 Abraham is commanded to offer “your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love” as a holocaust or whole burnt offering. If Abraham refuses, he disobeys the one who promised to make him a great nation through Isaac. If he goes through with the sacrifice, he will cut off not only his beloved son but also the promise associated with Isaac.
Thus Abraham faces a terrible dilemma. The story is told in a calm and cool manner. The effect of this literary indirection, however, is to heighten the drama and terror that Abraham must experience. Just when Abraham is about to carry out the terrible deed of killing his beloved son, God substitutes an animal for sacrifice. Thus Isaac and God’s promises are both preserved. But with Abraham’s act of faith, his trust in God’s promise and his obedience to God’s word, there begins the history of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel and the history of our salvation. Paul captures Abraham’s greatness as a model of faith by describing him as “fully convinced that what he [God] had promised he was also able to do” (Rom 4:21).
On the Second Sunday of Lent it is customary to read the account of Jesus’ transfiguration. The climax of the Markan narrative is the heavenly voice’s identification of Jesus as “my beloved Son.” The transfiguration is a preview, or anticipation, of the resurrection, when the risen Jesus will take on a glorious form and retain it forever. In Mark’s Gospel this episode occurs on the way to Jerusalem, shortly after Jesus’ first passion prediction and before a dialogue alluding to the death of the son of man. The mystery of the cross is the context for the transfiguration.
At Jesus’ baptism (1:11) a heavenly voice had identified him as “my beloved Son.” At the moment of Jesus’ death, a Roman centurion will declare that “truly this man was the Son of God” (15:39). Mark’s focus on Jesus as God’s beloved Son evokes the figure of Isaac in Genesis 22. But whereas Abraham’s son Isaac is spared, God’s beloved son Jesus undergoes a cruel death on the cross. This is indeed a mystery!
The mystery of God’s beloved Son deepens with Paul’s allusion to Genesis 22 in today’s passage from Romans 8, to the effect that God did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all (8:32; see also Heb 11:17-20; Jas 2:21-23). Paul interprets God’s willingness to sacrifice his own Son as proof of God’s great love for humankind and as a pledge that God will always protect and provide for us. Paul’s point is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection God has wiped the slate clean and given us a new start. That new start consists of a new and positive relationship with the one whom we can call the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and approach with confidence and hope in prayer. And no one and nothing, except ourselves and our own sinfulness, can take that relationship away from us.
The mystery of the sacrifice of Abraham’s beloved son Isaac is hard to understand, as the perennial fascination with Genesis 22 shows. But the mystery of the death of God’s beloved Son Jesus is far more challenging. Would it not have been enough for God’s Son simply to become human in order to redeem humankind and bring us into right relationship with God? Why was it necessary for him to endure suffering and to taste death for us? The mystery of God’s beloved son is a matter of faith seeking understanding.