After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you."
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, "By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice."
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
"If your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better to enter into life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into the hell of fire!" Matthew (18:9). This condemnation of anything which may prove a moral stumbling-block for us was deliberately extreme to make it stick in people's minds, and it does. But "hell fire" is not precisely what Matthew wrote, but rather the "fiery Gehenna." The Hebrew word Gehenna meant the "Valley of Hinnom," a gorge just south of the Jerusalem Temple. It was a place under a curse, for it was there that the pagan Canaanites used to sacrifice children to their god Moloch, by throwing them into a fire.
Some breakaway Jews followed that savage custom until the idol of Moloch was finally destroyed in the 7th century B.C. The horror of the place survived, and it became the refuse dump of Jerusalem, a place of continual smoke from burning rubbish. In the public mind it became synonymous with hell, a visible image of what that place must be. But there was no place for child-sacrifice in true worship of God, and devout Jews would claim there never was. They saw the confirmation of this in the actions of Abraham, their father in faith, how God stayed his hand as he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is full of high drama. The demand that Isaac be sacrificed seemed to utterly contradict God's promise that the boy would pass on Abraham's line into the distant future. It was a radical trial of faith, and no greater test of obedience could be set. Abraham's heart was pierced by the boy's innocent question, "Where is the lamb for the burnt offering? Finding it impossible to tell his son that he was the intended victim, Abraham stammered, "God will provide." St. John may well have this episode in mind when he wrote, "God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son" (3:16).
This story raises several acute questions. Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? Why did Abraham intend to obey? Indeed why did God allow his own divine Son to be sacrificed? The connection between Isaac and Jesus is obvious. Isaac prefigured Our Lord in that he was to be sacrificed on a hill, and he carried on his shoulder the wood for the intended sacrifice. But there the likeness ends. Isaac was the least notable of the patriarchs, a bridge of transition between Abraham and Jacob. In contrast, Jesus at the Transfiguration was shown to his three Apostles, as a figure of miraculous glory, truly God's Son and messenger to the world. Despite their enthusiasm, the of the Apostles' faith would be tested later on, as Abraham's was. The shining revelation of the divine person of Christ was in sharp contrast to watching him in Gethsemane sweating blood before his Passion. The God who spared the son of Abraham and showered him with blessings, did not spare his own Son, but left him in the hands of his enemies for our redemption.
Unlike Isaac, Jesus was aware of what lay ahead. "The Son of Man must suffer," he had said. Shortly before the Transfiguration, when he first told the disciples what he was to suffer, Peter prayed that God would not allow such a thing to happen. The Lord's response was instant and severe, "Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do" (Mk 8:33). In dealing with God we must have faith and trust. On the cellar wall of a bombed-out house in Cologne an unknown fugitive, obviously Jewish, left a testimony of trust that only came to light when the rubble was being cleared away after World War II. It read: "I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I do not feel it. I believe in God even when he is silent." That is the faith of Abraham, and is the kind of faith we should seek as well.
All love relationships flourish only when there is freedom to let go of what is precious, so as to receive it back as a gift. It is not easy to let go of what is precious. The more precious someone is to us, the harder it is to let go of that person. The more attractive someone is to us, the more we feel inclined to possess that person. Yet, in the effort to possess someone we can easily lose them. At the heart of all loving relationships is the freedom to let go of the other, and in letting go to receive the other back as a gift. Parents know that there comes a time when they have to let go of their sons or daughters, even though they are more precious to them than anything else. They may have to let them go to another country or to the person whom they have chosen as their future spouse. Yet, in letting go of their children, parents invariably discover that they receive them back as a gift. Single people too have to learn the freedom of letting go what is precious so as to receive it back as a gift. In any good and healthy friendship, people need to give each other plenty of space.
Abraham is today portrayed as being willing to let go of what was most precious to him, the only son of his old age. In being willing to let his son go to God, he went on to receive him back as a gift. Many people find it a very disturbing story, because it portrays God as asking Abraham to sacrifice his only beloved son as a burnt offering to God. We are rightly shocked by the image of God asking a father to sacrifice his son in this way. Abraham lived about a thousand years before Christ. In the religious culture of that time it was not uncommon for people to sacrifice their children to various gods. The point of the story seems to be that the God of Israel is not like the pagan gods. If Abraham thought that God was asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac like the people who worshipped other gods, he was wrong. God was not asking this of Abraham. Yet, the willingness of Abraham to let go of what was most precious to him if that was what God was asking remained an inspiration to the people of Israel. He had already shown a willingness to let go of his family and his homeland as he set out towards an unknown land in response to God's call.
The early church came to understand the relationship between Abraham and Isaac as pointing ahead to the relationship between God the Father and Jesus. Like Abraham, God was prepared to let go of what was most precious to him, his one and only Son, out of love for humanity. God was prepared to let his Son go to humanity, with all the dangers that entailed for his Son. Saint Paul was very struck by this extraordinary generosity of God on our behalf, as he says in this morning's second reading, 'God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all'. God let his precious Son go to humanity even though the consequences of that were the rejection of his Son and, ultimately, his crucifixion. Even after Jesus was crucified, God continued to give him to us as risen Lord. When Paul contemplates this self-emptying love of God for us, he asks aloud, in the opening line of that second reading, 'With God on our side who can be against us?' Paul is declaring that if God's love for us is this complete, then we have nothing to fear from anyone. Here is a love that has no trace of possessiveness, a love that makes us lovable.
In this morning's gospel reading, Peter, James and John are taken up a high mountain by Jesus, and there they have an experience of Jesus which took their breath away. It was an experience that was so precious that Peter could not let it go. He wanted to prolong it indefinitely and so he says to Jesus, 'Rabbi, it is wonderful for us to be here, so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah'. He and the other two disciples had a fleeting glimpse of the heavenly beauty of Christ, and did not want to let go of it. Beauty always attracts; it calls out to us. Yet, Peter and the others had to let go of this precious experience; it was only ever intended to be momentary. They would receive it back in the next life as a gift. For now, their task was to listen to Jesus, 'This is my beloved Son. Listen to him'. That is our task too. We spend our lives listening to the Lord as he speaks to us in his word and in and through the circumstances of our lives; we listen to him as a preparation for that wonderful moment when we see him face to face in eternity and we can finally say, 'it is wonderful to be here'