First reading: Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 115(116):10, 15-19.
Second reading: Romans 8:31-34.
Gospel: Mark 9:2-10.
Link to readings.
A common thread runs all three readings today: a parent’s sacrifice of a beloved child.
The account of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac—in its full extent rather than in the reduced form appearing as today’s First Reading (Gen 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18)— is a masterpiece of narrative art. At the same time, it can present a troubling image of God. Abraham may display faith and obedience to an admirable degree but what are we to think of a divinity who tests him by letting him believe till the very last moment that he must kill and sacrifice his only son? Traditional theology would probably respond that God is God, unanswerable to human categories of judgment (cf. the Book of Job). But many people will likely remain rather disturbed
It is probably best to concentrate in first instance on Abraham, rather than on God. Unfortunately, the lectionary extract omits the exchange between Isaac and his father as they climb the mountain (vv. 7-8). The boy points out the lack of a lamb for sacrifice. Abraham’s enigmatic response, “My son. God himself will provide ...”, serves at one level to keep the boy guessing. But more deeply it reveals the depth of the patriarch’s faith. He simply keeps walking into this appalling situation that God seems to require, all the while believing that somehow his future, which hangs entirely upon this only, God-given son, remains in the hands of God.
In the end God does provide, repeating, in still more generous terms the promise of a multitude of descendants and good fortune so great that it will become among all nations a byword for richness of blessing.
Any ambiguity regarding the image of God emerging from the First Reading falls away when Abraham’s near-sacrifice is read in the light of New Testament texts that appear to make allusion to it. Such is the case with the brief extract from the Letter to the Romans that forms the Second Reading (Rom 8:31-34). Paul is here bringing to a climax an argument for hope in the face of suffering. All rests upon the fidelity of God, operating according to a kind of a fortiori logic that runs through this part of the letter (see also 5:6-8; 5:17): if God has already shown such an extremity of love in giving up his only Son for us all, how could we think that God would stop there and not see us through to the fullness of salvation? How could God abandon us “half-way” to salvation, so to speak, or, after such sacrifice, let us fall out of the divine saving hand? We should not fail to pick up Paul’s clearly deliberate echo of the divine address to Abraham in Gen 22:16: “Because you have done this, and been prepared not to spare your son, your only son, ...”. Paul, in other words, is suggesting that what God did not in the end require of Abraham (the sacrifice of his only son, Isaac) God did, for love of us, in fact require of Godself: the sacrifice of his only Son, Jesus Christ. Paul sees Abraham’s confidence that “God will provide” fulfilled beyond all human imagining in this exercise of divine love.
The Gospel, giving Mark’s account of the Transfiguration (9:2-10), admirably completes the picture. There are many aspects to the scene. Dazzling whiteness signals the heavenly (divine) status of Jesus. The appearance of two prophetic figures, Elijah and Moses, conversing with him affirms his messianic role. However, in continuity with the theme emerging from the earlier readings, I think it is best to interpret it in close connection with what Jesus has insisted upon in the episode just before (Mark 8:27-38). In response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”, Peter has, correctly, confessed him to be the Christ. But when Jesus went on to detail what kind of Messiah he will be—namely, one who will suffer and die in Jerusalem, working salvation by entering into the pain and suffering of this world, Peter protested, earning a sharp rebuke (Mark 8:29-38). In the Transfiguration itself, along with the messianic witness of Elijah and Moses, the Father’s voice, affirms the status of Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved”, but goes on to add, “Listen to him!”—listen, that is, to what he has been saying about going up to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Being God’s “beloved Son” does not exempt Jesus from suffering but in fact draws him to it as part of the divine plan of salvation. The disciples, and all of us, as we continue upon our Lenten journey, are invited to enter ever more deeply into this mysterious blend of divine love and suffering that lies at the heart of the Paschal Mystery.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media