A profoundly difficult scripture text confronts the Church this Sunday, one whose very imagery has caused some to find the Judeo-Christian tradition troubling and not worthy of belief. The reading is the so-called sacrifice of Isaac, the moment when Abraham was ordered by God to offer his own son—his only legitimate child—in sacrifice to the Lord.
This story is especially hard to reckon with coming on the heels of last week’s heart-warming reading from Genesis, where God made a covenant of peace with Noah, placing a beautiful rainbow in the sky after the primordial flood as a sign and reminder of the Lord’s fidelity. What we discover as we read the sacrifice of Isaac is that from the start God did not intend to require the death of Isaac; rather, God was testing Abraham. The Bible itself confirms this understanding when it begins the account with the words: “God put Abraham to the test” (Gen 22:1).
A further redeeming moment is found through this test of faith when the Lord reveals to Abraham: “because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.” The Lord even makes the reward of Abraham’s testing go beyond the children of Abraham to all of humanity when he promises, “in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing, because you obeyed my command” (Gen 22:16-17, 18). The upshot is that Abraham believed that God was worthy of trust although Abraham himself could not fathom how God would make good on his covenants and promises.
Saint Paul takes up the theme of faith as well today, writing in his Letter to the Romans: “If God is for us, who can be against us? 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?” (Rom 8:31-32). As a faithful Jew, Paul would have known the story of Abraham and Isaac from his youth, and he makes a clear parallel to it when he rhetorically asks how God could withhold anything from us, even when it seems that everything is stacked against us, if he did not withhold his very Son.
The fidelity of God seen in Abraham’s test and witnessed in Paul’s indomitable trust prepares us for the Gospel reading in which Jesus is transfigured before the eyes of his closest apostles, Peter, James, and John. The Lord’s transfiguration and the accompanying vision of Elijah and Moses, representative of the prophets and the Law, allowed these apostles to briefly glimpse Jesus in his full heavenly glory, and thus to steel themselves for the coming adversity in which Jesus would be put to death and all earthly hopes in him would be shattered.
In spite of the disillusionment which followed Jesus death on the cross, and their own temporary abandonment of Jesus at his moment of greatest need, Peter, James, and John were lifted up by the surpassing fidelity of God in their moment of darkness and led to become among the greatest proclaimers of the risen Jesus. Inspired by the examples of Abraham, Paul, and the apostles, may we stand firm in our faith in the Lord when we find ourselves in the dark moments of life, so that we can rejoice together as the adopted children of Abraham, finding our blessing in him who is the source and goal of all faith.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.