Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lent II: Homily: 2015

On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off

The first reading this Sunday, the sacrifice of Issac, has always troubled and disturbed Jews and Christians, not to mention the critics of Judaism and Christianity. There have been many ‘solutions’ to the apparent outrageous demand of God requiring Abraham to kill his Son.  The most famous of these solutions was that of Soren Kierkegaard, who refused to accept that there was any solution to the story. The  sacrifice of Isaac was meant to shock and unsettle us, to make us see the visceral, brutal nature of the ordeal undergone by both father and son which had been "cleaned up" and downplayed by the religious community.  To address the significance of this scriptural story adequately, believed Kierkegaard, we must recognize its horror, the inexplicablity of the pain involved, the raw violence it does against the human being itself.

I wonder about that: after the Nuremburg trials and the trial of Adolf Eichmann we are no strangers to raw brutality and to the plea “I was just following orders”. This is not to mention more recent events: Al-Queda and ISIS claiming  not to be following merely human orders but divine ones.

Still I think as far as he goes Kierkegaard is right: the sacrifice of Issac cannot be explained away in terms of the Old Testament. From the perennial perspective of Christianity the Old Testament constantly groans, longs for and struggles for realities, which it cannot itself provide. The wandering in the wilderness in search of the promised land, the longing for deliverance from exile, the messianic hope and expectation remain unrealized within the bounds of the Old Testament alone.

The Dominican Fr. Geoffrey Preston viewed this in terms of the Easter Vigil. The Old Testament readings all through the Sundays of Lent are a preparation for the Easter Vigil. In that dark night but in the light of the Paschal Candle, we hear ‘the record of God's saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past; and pray that our God will bring each of us to the fullness of redemption’. What is happening, Fr. Preston says, is the Old Testament dies and is resurrected with the Resurrection and Death of Jesus Christ.

This is not so apparent to us because we do not read the Old Testament as the Church has throughout most of her history. As St. Augustine said: “the New Testament is hidden in the Old; the Old Testament is revealed in the New.” The name for this is typology: the Old Testament consists of types and shadows which point us forward to the Gospel and it is the Gospel which explains the Old Testament.

So the sacrifice of Issac, which is one of the readings at the Vigil, can only be a conundrum, an impossible puzzle, a paradox, if we cannot seeing it foreshadowing, illuminating and fulfilled in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ:

The mountain in the land of Moriah is Mount Calvary outside the walls of Jerusalem.

On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off; the place where on another third day Jesus rises from the tomb.

Issac is the beloved son of an earthly father; Jesus is the beloved Son of the eternal Father.

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son just as the wood of the cross is laid on the shoulder of Jesus.

“But where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son”, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world.

Issac like Jesus the Lamb goes voluntarily to the slaughter: as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

Issac trusts his father as Jesus trusts his Father: “into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Abraham does not have to sacrifice his son: but the Father of Jesus gives his Son for the life of the world.

“God tested Abraham”. Not only to manifest Abraham’s faith, but also to prepare the way for the perfect sacrifice which would be effected when God the Father offered up his own beloved Son upon the mountain of Calvary on the altar of the Cross, and yet received him back alive through his glorious Resurrection from the dead. As  Jesus  said, “Abraham your father rejoiced that he might see my day: he saw it, and was glad.” (John 8:56)

But to see this all this you have to be far-sighted and Lent is intended to make this optical adjustment. On Ash Wednesday we were told to observe a holy Lent by among other things ‘by reading and meditating on God's holy Word’. One way of describing what it means to ‘meditate’ on Holy Scripture is to connect the dots. To mediate is to see the links in the chain, between the Old Testament and the New certainly but to see even farther and to realize that we are also a links in the chain.

We experience the world as a confusing, baffling violent place, where nothing makes much sense and yet behind the chaos stands the effectual working of divine  providence, the plan of salvation; things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.  So we pray both on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, in the shadow of the Cross and the new Light of the Resurrection.

On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off

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