The other night I watched the film, “In order of disappearance”, shown on the BBC. It’s about a father who, once he realises his son’s apparent suicide was anything but, takes revenge on a drug cartel for having murdered his son. The film shows the impact of the son’s death on both mother and father, and on their relationship. The mother seems to withdraw into herself and “lose it” a little, eventually abandoning her husband. Before he decides to take revenge for his son, there is a scene in which the father is shown ready to take his own life, almost as if he had to, given that he had not protected his son. He is stopped by his son’s friend who informs him that his death was by murder, not suicide.
In a family, it’s hard to think of a tragedy worse than a parent who loses a child to premature death. Everything about it screams “No!” At the very least, it gets the natural order of things round the wrong way. At the very most, as was the case in that film, it can lead to madness and even destroy a family.
When we then consider the story of Abraham and Isaac, the test God puts Abraham through comes across as diabolical. Isaac was conceived when Abraham was very old; he was the son of God’s promise to him that his descendants would number the sands of the shore and stars of the heavens. That God would now demand of Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice is odious beyond words. It is against nature; it breaks God’s promise; and worst of all it destroys any understanding of God as good, loving and faithful to his promises.
But that’s not how Abraham saw it. Abraham as a son himself had left his father’s house at God’s command and in the strength of God’s promise that he would make him the father of many nations. Abraham put his trust in God, had faith in him and in his promises. He had also already experienced God’s fidelity to his promises by giving him the land of Canaan, by protecting him on his journey and by giving him Isaac as a son when it seemed impossible because of Sarah’s old age. So, Abraham was used to God’s tests and faithfulness. Abraham knew that, whatever the test, God would remain faithful. He probably also understood that this greatest of all tests would, if he obeyed, manifest to the greatest degree God’s faithfulness to him. Reflecting on this scene, the Letter to the Hebrews says that: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” In other words, Abraham believed that even if he did kill Isaac as asked, God would still have given Isaac back to him. Hence, when God stopped the sacrifice, it was indeed as if Abraham had sacrificed him and welcomed him back from the dead.
Apart from Abraham’s tested relationship of faith with God, what is playing out in this story is, in fact, the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Abraham’s sacrifice of obedience to God finds its fulfilment in Christ’s obedience to the Father in sacrificing himself on the Cross for us. It’s as if our departure from God by sin became a kind of test of God’s love for us. It was a test for the Father and a test for the Son. It is a test they both knew could come as the result of creating us free, free to obey them and free to disobey them. If our freedom is tested in temptation, God’s infinite freedom is tested by our death. There was never any doubt how God would respond. He would never give us up easily. He loved us from before the creation of the world. While our sin broke our love for him, it did not break his love for us.
And so, Father and Son, like Commander and Warrior, engage the battle in the power of the Spirit. Their goal is simply stated: to rescue us from sin and death. But it is not so simply accomplished. The reason is that the battle had to be engaged with full respect for our freedom, otherwise it would not work. Majestic displays of cosmic power were the last thing needed. He had to meet us where we were and as we were. And so, he became one of us in every way except sin. That was the first step of his tactical genius against evil. The incarnation of Jesus was like a Trojan horse, only he did not hide in a human nature and climb out of it to save us, but actually assumed it to himself and saved us through it. His divinity was present in his humanity and showed itself when he performed miracles, exorcisms and healings as well as, for example, when he was transfigured in the presence of Peter, James and John. Like a light gradually turned up in brightness within a bulb, the divinity of Jesus showed itself in his humanity, without doing it any harm.
But the incarnation was only the first step, and a necessary step. Jesus saw for himself the damage sin had done to the human mind, to human freedom and to the human body. He tried to enlighten the mind with the truth, to liberate freedom with his love and to heal the body with his power. And while he had some success with some people in these things, it was clear that the solution had to be more radical if it was to be there for all. If human beings were to be freed from sin and death and be given the power to find their way back to the Father, the Son knew he had to take all sin and death upon himself and take away the power of the Devil over them. And that is precisely what he did on the Cross, foreshadowed in the wood on which Isaac was to be sacrificed. Like Abraham, God the Father did not slay his own Son. Unlike Abraham, the Father let the Son give up his life in freedom to be the sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. Isaac was only figuratively raised from death when he was saved from being sacrificed. Jesus truly sacrificed himself to the Father in the Spirit and was truly raised from the dead by the Father in the Spirit, foreshadowed in the transfiguration. Henceforth, all who become one with Jesus through the Spirit and the Eucharist, are freed from sin and guaranteed the hope of the resurrection.
All of this was done for us. And so, it puts each of us on the spot. And the spot is this: will I obey Christ or will I not? Even more: do I want freedom from sin and death or not? Obedience to Christ is not primarily about rules and regulations, although we need these to keep us on the straight and narrow. As with Abraham and Our Lady, obedience is primarily about living your life for Christ. It is a project of life. It is an outlook on life, a way of interpreting and living life. Obedience is about using your freedom to live in deep and constant intimacy with Christ. It is about listening to him, listening out for him, and obeying trustfully what he asks of you. You hear his voice in the readings and prayers of Mass, in the holy bible, in the teaching of the Church; you hear it in the loving advice and counsel of your parents, your friends and maybe even of the stranger. Every human heart has the capacity to hear and recognize the voice of Christ because his voice and word created it. We, or others, may try and drown it out, but in the silence of the night, in the depths of the heart and in the admonitions of true conscience, the small still voice will seep through, beckoning us to obey.
Lent is the time to discover or rediscover the freedom of obedience to Christ. Christ speaks the truth and the truth sets us free if we obey it. We must still the voices around and within us which flaunt disobedience as the path to personal freedom and fulfilment. When it comes to the weightier matters such as love, suffering, the meaning of life and of the world, the meaning of abandonment and death, of hope and genuine purpose, only Christ can provide the full answers for he has been through it all for our sakes. That is not to say that there are not many others who can give assistance and insight, or who can provide practical advice and direction. But all of these need to be measured against Christ, welcomed if they draw us closer to him and rejected if they do not.
All this will require that we train and discipline ourselves and, yes, that we at times sacrifice what we like or prefer. If we do that, there is nothing that God will not give us to help, sustain and reward us. For, if he has already given us his Son, how can he refuse anything he can give? Be not afraid to obey the Lord. It will be the making of you – and your transfiguration.