Lectionary #26, Gospel Mark 9: 2-10
The first reading presents to us one of the most difficult passages of the entire Bible: the story of the “Aqedah”, meaning “the binding”, of Isaac, and his barely avoided sacrifice at the hands of Abraham his father. The very idea of God asking a person to sacrifice another person—not to mention that person’s own child—is abhorrent to us.
This story of the would-be sacrifice of Isaac is so vivid and so well-known among the narratives of the Bible that it is often used by those who deride Christianity and Judaism as a “proof” of the irrational or even cruel nature of our religious beliefs, which appear in this case to make us subservient to a God who demands human offerings in return for divine protection or favor.
While different interpretations of the Aqedah have been offered over the centuries in order to provide an explanation or to excuse the seemingly frightening image of God, the critical point to recall is that no matter how one reads this story, God does in fact ask Abraham for absolutely everything he has—his son Isaac—who was his unique connection to any hope for future progeny or remembrance.
Whether God’s request to Abraham can ever be justified in the light of Jewish or Christian morality, it is clear that devotion to God is all-consuming. We might not sense this often, but there are moments in our lives when the self-giving that Christian discipleship demands cuts so close to the core of our existence that we realize personally the sting of the words Jesus spoke to his followers immediately before the Transfiguration recounted in today’s gospel: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).
Of course these same painful words would ultimately prove to be salvific for us, as it was through the all-consuming self-gift of Jesus on the cross that he was able to exult in his subsequent resurrection, and we are able to share in it, after we have accompanied him in giving everything to the Father.
The total self-surrender to God asked of Abraham, however that may be interpreted, stands in anticipation of the total self-offering of Jesus to the Father for the sake of our salvation. Unlike the offering of Isaac, who was a mute and passive figure, the offering of Jesus was free and voluntary, done out of love for all who had ever, or who would ever, walk the path of human life, hemmed-in as it is by sin and vulnerability.
Jesus exercises perfect freedom in giving of himself to the end, and thus he shows the fullness of our human potential which is realized when we let go of ourselves and give of ourselves in a myriad of ways, some peaceful and some painful—these are our sharing in Christ’s cross. Such imitation of Christ requires strong faith and hope, and that is what the Transfiguration confirmed in Peter, James, and John. The glory they beheld, though they did not understand it, carried them through the doubts and anxiety of Jesus’ passion and death, and enabled them to finally comprehend how this glory had to be brought about through self-giving.
The fear that struck the apostles when they saw Jesus transfigured would eventually turn to joy, but only after the resurrection had vindicated Christ’s self-gift. Long before the resurrection, the Aqedah showed God’s fidelity to Abraham and his descendants after him, sealed through Abraham’s complete self-gift to God; on the cross Jesus perfected this fidelity through his own self-giving. During the Lenten season, enlivened in hope by the Transfiguration of Christ, may we demonstrate the same faithful spirit of self-offering to him which he showed for our sake, and thus enter into the fullness of Easter joy.
Father Edward M. Mazich, O.S.B.