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Victor Cancino, S.J.February 20, 2024
Photo from Unsplash.

The Second Sunday of Lent continues to highlight motifs present in last Sunday’s readings. Although there are some similarities, the theological lens from today’s readings presents a distinct vantage point. In the opening reading, again from Genesis, the focus is Abraham’s response to a God that requests of him the sacrificial offering of his only son Isaac. This potential offering on top of Mount Moriah presents a “covenantal scene” like the ones in last Sunday’s readings, a setting with a “distinctive landscape” and an “inner biblical conversation” around sacrifice. These motifs appear in each of this Sunday’s readings, and can reinforce our Lenten prayer.

I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living. (Ps 116:9)

Liturgical day
Readings
Gn 22:1-18, Ps 116, Rom 8:31-34, Mk 9:2-10
Prayer

Does your faith matter enough to you that, like Abraham, you can feel it in your bones?

Is there a place you might go this Lent that reminds you of God’s presence?

How can you better pray from a place of life-giving hope this Lent?

As Jesus was tempted in the desert last Sunday, today’s first reading provides another scene of divine testing. “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.” says God to Abraham. “There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you” (Gn 22:2). Last week’s depiction of a rainbow over the vast open waters was a powerful image that served as a reminder of the covenant with Noah. The scene this Sunday is just as vivid, but for a different reason. Here the author presents the buildup of a sacrificial request and captures the drama of a potential slaughter of a son by his father. Left to our imagination, the scene strikes a vivid image that lingers, albeit uncomfortably.

Sacrificial acts made up the religious-social fabric of the ancient world; the more costly the sacrifice the more sincere the petition to heaven becomes. Human sacrifice would have been rare and extreme in Abraham’s time but not completely unknown. Intuitively, in Abraham’s time the idea of taking time to fashion an “intentional offering” was a constitutive element in the religious practice that helped to navigate life. A good example of such an intentional offering was Solomon’s sacrifice of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep at the dedication of the Lord’s temple (1 Kgs 8:63). The ancient world’s maxim would have been something like, ‘with great power comes a great offering of whole burnt sacrifices.’ This is a world completely foreign to us. Today we speak of parents sacrificing for their kids but not actually sacrificing their kids. The potential human sacrifice of Isaac appears grotesque to a modern sensibility.

What can modern people of faith learn from Abraham’s story? Abraham, who is called the father of faith, undergoes a test on two different levels. First, he must trust that the God demanding a whole burnt offering (holocaust) of his only son, Isaac, is doing so without malice or trickery. Second, he must trust in God’s initial promise -  that Abraham’s descendants will be countless - will still somehow come to pass even without Isaac (see Gn 17:4). Faith like this resides deep in one’s bones. Without such faith, the costly deed of any sacrificial action would lack the momentum needed to execute the deed. “Because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your only beloved son,” God swears to Abraham, “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky” (Gn 22:16-17). The covenant is renewed. Abraham’s sacrificial world view is not our own, but the need to trust in God’s promise of a fruitful evolution of some greater divine plan remains as true today as it did for the father of faith. 

Today’s Gospel passage is set, once again, upon a high place, where Jesus is transfigured before his disciples (Mk 9:2). From last Sunday’s open desert, the landscape shifts to a high mountaintop. The Bible consistently designates these higher altitudes as a place of divine revelation. It is as if one may approach the divine presence by ascending its mountain, that is, one may attempt to reach divine proximity. Where the open waters and desert evoke a journey towards an unknown horizon, the mountain climb is a bold action undertaken by someone seeking the divine presence. Moses wrote God’s words on Mount Sinai and Abraham heard God’s call on Mount Moriah; likewise, Jesus ascended a high mountain to reveal the God of Israel to his disciples. 

In this Sunday’s Gospel, God reveals the divine presence in Jesus’ identity. “This is my beloved Son,” speaks a voice from a cloud, “Listen to him” (Mk 9:7). Biblical theology often presents a tension between God’s presence and humanity’s location: While the divine presence can easily move downwards towards humanity, it is also true that sometimes the people of faith move upwards trying to reach the divine presence of God. Last Sunday, Jesus was ready to begin a journey in the open desert, while this Sunday the readings remind one that sometimes a courageous mountain climb is necessary to witness divine revelation.

When Paul writes to the Roman church, in this Sunday’s second reading, he wrestles with the idea that God “does not spare his own Son” (Rom 8:32). For the purpose of Christian living and to understand the role of sacrifice in our discipleship, Paul adds a phrase that places everything into perspective. “It is Christ Jesus who died—or, rather, was raised—who indeed intercedes for us,” says Paul (Rom 8:34). With a subtle placement of words, the Apostle to the Gentiles alludes to the life and resurrection of Jesus who “was raised” as the hope of Christian life. Every sacrifice made, even if it leads to death, finds meaning only in light of a God of life that raises the dead to new life. Even the disciples need to reflect on this ultimate truth, “They kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant” (Mk 9:10).

It seems that Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son is not the most radical thing to contemplate this Sunday. Perhaps it is the belief in a hopeful future even as we are flooded with messages that the world is falling apart. This requires a faith deep in one’s bones.

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