Two anonymous engravings combined by Scott LaPierre

Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on the Second Sunday in Lent (28 February)

“This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

The emphasis in the lectionary readings are about the identity of the two sons that feature.

In Genesis we have that difficult story of God’s testing of Abraham, whose name means ‘father of a multitude’. To our modern ears we struggle with God being presented as asking Abraham, as a test, to sacrifice his only son. Isaac is the very son that God had given Abraham and Sarah in their old age, through whom God would bless the whole earth. So what on earth is going on here?

At a simple level, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is indeed God testing Abraham to see how much he would trust and obey — no matter how difficult the request was. We are not privy to the mind of Abraham but one might call to mind the words of Job 1:21 “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In reference to this very episode, the writer to the Hebrews speaks of Abraham’s faith in God’s promises. “He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence he did receive him [Isaac] back and this was a symbol.” We also have to remember our understanding of the individual would not be recognised or understood in ancient cultures. Isaac was a part Abraham’s self-identity, and a part of Abraham would die with Isaac.

However, nowhere else in the Old Testament is God depicted as asking for human sacrifice from his people. To grasp something of the deeper importance of this event we need to look at it in light of the events of Holy Week, especially Good Friday. There are extraordinary parallels with the passion of our Lord. Firstly it’s the sacrifice of an only-begotten Son. At the baptism as well as here in the Transfiguration of our Lord, God the Father identifies Christ has his Beloved Son. However close we might be to a loved one, a spouse or a child, it can only ever reveal a small insight into the intimate nature of the union between God the Father and God the Son. Christ hints at this closeness when saying: ‘All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ And ‘I and the Father are one.’ Therefore the Father and the Spirit are present at the cross, not distant spectators.

The ram that Abraham discovers is caught in the thickets by its horns and our Lord is dressed with a crown of thorns by the Roman soldiers who taunted and abused him. Isaac carries the wood upon which he is to be sacrificed and Christ bears his own cross along the way to Golgotha. Abraham lays Isaac bound upon the wood and Christ is laid upon the cross bound and nailed. The appearance of the ram sacrificed by Abraham echoes our Lord’s celebration of the Last Supper in which he reveals himself to be the true Passover lamb.

Mountains in the scriptures are the places of divine encounter and revelation. Abraham offers Isaac on Mount Moriah. Moses encounters God in the burning bush and receives the Ten Commandments upon a mountain. Elijah glimpses the glory of God and hears the still small voice of God, after the earthquake, wind and fire, upon a mountain. Christ as the new Moses delivers his sermon on the mount and here on the mountain of the Transfiguration reveals a glimpse of his divine glory as Son of the Father.

It is after his transfiguration that Christ starts speaking of his death to his disciples and sets his face to go to Jerusalem. Mount Moriah is only mentioned twice in the scriptures. Here in the Abraham and Isaac incident and then by king Solomon, who follows his Father David’s instructions and builds the Temple of the Lord on Mount Moriah. Jerusalem and the Temple are built upon the same mountain that Abraham was to offer Isaac to God in sacrifice. It is to the same mountain that Christ sets his face and will be offered himself upon the cross for the salvation of the world.

The angel of God stays Abraham’s hand, and the story points forward to Christ’s sacrifice through whom the promise to bless all the nations will find its ultimate fulfilment. It is here that we understand God reveals through this story of Abraham and Isaac, “no, not your sacrifice, but mine.”

It is in the light of this self-giving of the Godhead that St Paul is so confident to say: “What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” And that nothing in heaven or earth will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We know who Christ is: “This is my Son the Beloved,” and we know that the Godhead is intimately engaged in the suffering of the cross that has overcome the world, the flesh and the devil, to bless all the nations of the earth. Therefore, we can trust the Father’s command to ‘listen to him,’ which is to follow his teachings and entrust ourselves to his graces, in faith, because they are our life, health and salvation.

He has overcome the world and will walk with us, even through the valley of the shadow of death, so that we might sit at the banquet with his saints in glory.