Many primitive cultures have practiced human sacrifice, including the ancient tribes in the Middle East. Archeologists tell us that the area outside of Jerusalem, the valley of Gahenna, was once a place where human sacrifice was practiced. It was a place that provoked great fear. These very early people instinctively knew that to sacrifice a human life was the greatest and most supreme sacrifice that could be made. More grapes and wheat could be grown. More lambs and goats could be bred. But humans came only from the mysterious event of birth.
I am always a little sickened by the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. It seems to go against every thing we hold as right and decent as well as everything we believe about a loving God. Even the ending, when the ram appears and is used as the sacrifice, leaves me uneasy about the story. Nevertheless, since we are told that God is good, and since Isaac was a child who was brought to life by a miracle, we should know that Abraham was right to trust God.
Sacrifice was a significant ritual for the Jewish people. Historians tell us that the blood from the lambs ran in red rivers down the streets of Jerusalem from the temple during Passover. We usually think of gifts as benefiting the person they are given to. At Passover, animals were sacrificed so that the givers could receive something valuable; as a community they recalled being protected from the plagues God put on the Egyptians, and thereby were freed from slavery and lead into the Promised Land. Animal sacrifice ended when the Temple was destroyed, only some 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, but a ritualized image of sacrifice remains in our own Mass.
The Lectionary uses all this to set the tone, to prepare us to think deeply about the crucifixion, which occurred at Passover. It is framed in the immensity of the thought of a loving and all-powerful God willingly sacrificing his son to a frenzied mob motivated by little more than silver coins and the desire for power. That mob continues to haunt us; too much of human interaction is still mob mentality, where superficial information and ignorance leave people open to faulty conclusions and horrific actions.
It is not hard to understand why Pontius Pilot handed over Jesus to the mob to be crucified – giving them what they wanted was the only way to avoid a full-blown riot. The worst part of the Good Friday reading of the Passion is when the congregation is expected to read the words the crowd spoke: “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” At that point, I always say a prayer that I will never be part of a mob chanting like that.
I recently heard from a woman who had lost both her husband and her only daughter within 2 months. Naturally, she was in shock. Among other things, I suggested that she lean on the Blessed Mother, because she too, as a widow, had lost her precious child in the most terrible of circumstances. It was an image that helped this grieving woman.
Likewise, the Lectionary gives us the story of Abraham and Isaac to help us understand the idea of God losing his precious and sinless son to mob who had no respect for his life. At the same time, our Gospel reading reassures us that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God. Jesus is transfigured, and his clothes become an unearthly dazzling white; he talks with Elijah and Moses. God says Jesus is “my beloved Son.” Afterwards, Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone about this except when the “Son of Man had risen from the dead,” which confuses the disciples even more.
So what are we to take away from this muddle of sacrifice and death, alongside transfiguration? The Abraham story assures us that God’s promises can be trusted, even when the situation is dire. Indeed, the children of Abraham did become as many as the stars in the sky, through his son Isaac. The transfiguration story is also to build trust for the apostles, because very shortly their faith will be badly shaken. Jesus is the son of God and will rise from the dead. The apostles could trust in this message from God, as can we, for the risen Christ is the primary foundation of Christianity. If the 2nd Sunday of Lent were to have a name, it would be “trust”. This Lent, let us set aside our fears of the future, and trust that Creator, Son and Holy Sprit will be with us as we travel together through these 40 days leading to Easter Morning, and beyond.