In the Shadow of Abraham

TransfigurationEvery year on the Second Sunday of Lent (February 28 this year) we are invited to ascend the mountain with Jesus and several chosen disciples, to contemplate the remarkable event of the Transfiguration:

"After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9.2-4)

The scene seems glorious, the conversations solemn, and as at the Baptism, Jesus is commended by a voice from heaven:

"This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him! (9.7)

But at its conclusion, the event is connected to Jesus’ coming journey to Jerusalem and passage through death:

"As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (9.9-11)

Jesus knows clearly that he will go up to Jerusalem, and that he will die there — and that God promises that he will rise again. What happened to John – Elijah – is what Jesus himself faces:

"Jesus replied, 'To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.' (9.12-13)

We can only imagine though what this will mean for Jesus personally: how do you keep following your vocation, embracing your mission, when you know that every step brings you closer to the cross?

Our first reading today from Genesis 22 offers a kind of answer. It puts before us the terrible scene of the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, at God’s direct command:

"Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love — Isaac — and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22.1-2)

Abraham obeys, and he and Isaac travel slowly to Moriah (perhaps the future Jerusalem). Just as he is about to slaughter Isaac, the angel of the Lord intervenes:

"When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (22.9-12)

Horribly tested, and found faithful. But could there be a worse test, than to be asked to kills one’s own child? Will there not be a bitter taste in the mouth of the Abraham, as if faith is some kind of callous game God plays?

When we think of this story, we often identify Jesus with Isaac: as the son nearly sacrificed, so too the Son will be sacrificed on the cross.

But rather than Isaac, it seems to me that our readings link Jesus to the faithful, long-suffering, sorely tried Abraham, even if he is not there on the mountain with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Abraham is a man who is intimate with God — who speaks directly to him repeatedly — and whose faith is sorely tested, as he is repeatedly on the edge of losing everything, even as God keeps promising him everything. He is like Jesus.

To understand this, we must read back a few chapters, since Genesis 22 is only the end portion of a prolonged and worsening trial played out over the preceding chapters.

Hagar and IshmaelEven as early as Genesis 11, when God first calls out to Abram – soon to be Abraham – he promises him a lineage of descendants beyond counting, even if he is more than 80 years old, does not yet have a son, while his wife Sarai — soon to be Sarah — is well beyond the child-bearing age. The promise is certain, irrevocable, but seemingly absurd. And then everything goes wrong, as this summary suggests:

+ Sarah cannot have children, so in order to have an heir, Abraham at age 86 impregnates Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave. But Sarah resents this and mistreats Hagar, making her flee into the desert. But an angel comes to comfort Hagar and tells her to return to Abraham and Sarah. In their house she bears her child, Ishmael, who is loved by Abraham. (c. 16)

+ A few years later Sarah finally does have a child, Isaac, when Abraham is 100 years old and she is near 90. Sarah is again unhappy, and she no longer wants Hagar and Ishmael around to remind her of those earlier days of sorrow. At her behest, Abraham again sends out into the desert Hagar and Ishmael, whom he loves as his son, ill-provisioned, seemingly doomed. But God intervenes and saves them, and promises a mighty heritage also for Ishmael (who is highly revered in Islam, as a chosen one in whom God’s promises are fulfilled). (c 21)

+ Then God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (c. 22)

(As if all this is not enough, for some reason the bulk of chapters 18-19 is taken up with the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, the endangerment of Lot, Abraham’s brother, and the total destruction of the cities, despite Abraham’s plea for mercy, for the sake of the innocent. Massive destruction setting the scene for the sacrifice to follow?)

By the time God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his dear and now only son, he and Sarah, and Hagar and Ishmael, have been sorely tested more than once, the clarity and improbability of God’s promises ever more sharply delineated: believe me, says the Lord, even if everything goes against my word. Take the knife to your only son, kill him yourself: trust me.  

All of that, as awful as it may be, is a fiery context for today’s Gospel. Jesus too is being pushed by God to the limit, glorious promises coupled with the looming threat of ignominious death. Jesus’ every good word and good work lead him closer to the cross. He knows this, but he does not run away. Like Abraham, he embraces the absurdity of faith, never giving up on the deeper truth that God’s promises always come true.

Abraham and IsaacThe Lenten readings always have something to teach us. Today’s pairing of Genesis 22 and Mark 9 calls us to a certain brutal honesty and hard courage in Lent 2021. We are a full year into the testing and trial, death and disruption, of the woeful global tragedy that is Covid 19; a host of other torments have beset us too, ranging from ugly racism to climate degradation and the dreary obscenities of grinding poverty; personal losses large and small: we may find and feel all of this to be thrown in our face, as taunting us to give up and turn away. Abraham and Jesus shows us how to stand firm, unblinking before what lies before us.

It is usually good and right to count our blessings, and to be thankful for all God has done for us. But this week, the Transfiguration shines upon our lives a harsh light that reveals everything just as it is, death and all. Jesus stands in the shadow of Abraham, and we are invited with fear and trembling to see ourselves in their shadow, called in our small ways to pay the price of faith in a faithless world. If Abraham looked again and again into the abyss, and did not stop believing; if Jesus too, in the harsh bright light of the Transfiguration, looked his death in the face and kept walking right into it, then we too can stick with our faith even in the worst of times: “God does not lie, God will lead me through this darkness too.”

Note: above I wrote the words, “fear and trembling,” which many of you will have recognized as an echo of Soren Kierkegaard’s powerful book on the true meaning of faith, Fear and Trembling. It circles around the dark secrets of the near killing of Isaac by Abraham. You can find at least parts of the text online, and a summary of his interpretation of the Abraham story here.