For this second Sunday in Lent our First Reading (Exodus 22: 1-2,9-13,15-18) is about another major Old Testament figure with whom God entered into a covenant. Last Sunday we had the first such agreement with Noah. It is followed today by one with Abraham and next Sunday by the covenant with Moses. These interim covenants are point for us to the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ announced by Jesus at the Last Supper which we will commemorate in Holy Week.
Although Abraham cannot be located to a specific time in history – some scholars say his story was written in the late 6th century BC – he is, nevertheless, the common patriarch of the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He is the father not just of Judaism but, as one of the Eucharistic Prayer states, ‘our father in faith’.
More than likely Abraham was a nomad to settle in Canaan, an area which today encompasses Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, and the southern portions of Syria and Lebanon. In this pagan land child sacrifice was common. He believed that God has led him there and thought it would please his God if he sacrificed his and wife Sarah’s only child as well. However, just as he was about to do this, Abraham heard God calling on him not to sacrifice the boy. His absolute faith in God was enough; the sacrifice of his only child was not necessary.
It’s at this point that God makes a covenant with him, promising he would have many descendants who would live in this land and enjoy God’s favour.
This event marked a seminal moment in the history of Judaism – it laid down a marker that unlike the other religions, human sacrifice was not acceptable. This was one of two features that now distinguished Hebrew belief from the other Middle Eastern religions – Jews believed in a single God (rather than many, as the Canaanites did) and they did not practise human sacrifice.
Christians view this story of Abraham and Isaac in an added and deeper way. In their parent/son relationship we have a reminder of the parent/son relationship between Jesus and God the Father. While Abraham in the end did not have to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, God the Father allowed his only Son, Jesus, to give up his life on Mount Calvary. Isaac was spared; Jesus was not. God showed mercy to Isaac but showed no mercy to himself. And Isaac’s voluntary doing as his father asked, willing to surrender his life, reminded early Christians of Jesus, the Lamb of God, freely surrendered his life.
Thus St Paul declares in the Second Reading: ‘God did not spare his own Son but gave him up to benefit us all.’
In the Gospel today (Mark 9:2-10) Jesus is on Mount Hermon, about 8,360 metres high when he gives the first prophecy of his coming passion. In an intense mystical experience he discovers more about what is required of him to seal the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ with God. With his closest companions he is studying passages in the books of Moses and the Prophets (personified by Elijah) during which he ‘heard’ Moses and Elijah ‘talking to him’, that is ‘speaking’ to him in passages of text to be fulfilled through his Cross. And, as at his baptism, they ‘heard’ confirmation from God that he, Jesus, ‘are my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’
When I read of this event, I am struck always by St Peter’s ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here’. Given the pandemic and lockdown of the past year, and the many hardships and sacrifices forced on so many, we might not feel like identifying with Peter’s declaration, especially if things are really rough for us at the moment.
Sometimes God asks much of us, calling us to make great sacrifices that go against all our instincts and desires. Just as those three disciples had difficulty understanding what was happening to Jesus, we also struggle to understand God’s ways and purposes in our lives. Like Abraham, we can be tested to the limit and have heavy demands placed upon us. The disciples did not come to understand Jesus until after the resurrection when they saw him as Risen Lord in Galilee. All may not be clear to us now but Abraham and Jesus both stand before us as models of patient trust, knowing that God has the final word in our lives and one day all will be revealed. We do our best to trust in a God who is always one of grace and mercy.
Nevertheless, many of us still have much to be grateful for, that as bad as things may be we know they could be a lot worse (as they are for so many). We may be hanging on by our fingernails but we have survived thus far and have much to look forward to. So, perhaps, if we can, we might take the opportunity in this Mass to acknowledge the good that is in our lives, all that God has done and continues to do for us and around us now.
Holy Name, Jesmond
28 February 2021