Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Fr. Richard Cipolla

From the gospel of the Transfiguration: “ And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun and his garments became white as light.” (Mt. 17:1-2)
And from the book of Genesis:  “Take your son Isaac, your only one whom, you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.” (Gen. 22:2)

There were two on that mountain of the transfiguration with Christ:  Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah the great prophet.  They were there with the One who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, Jesus Christ.  But there was present also not in bodily form but surely spiritually the one who the Roman Canon calls Abraham, our father in faith.  For the covenant God made with Abraham reached its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ.  And it is the test of Abraham by God in the sacrifice of his beloved Son, Isaac, that points to in a direct line to the sacrifice of the only Son of God by God the Father which act is the definition of love.

When one hears or reads the story of Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice demanded by God, the only proper thing to do is to be silent.  Silence is the only way to listen to this story, this story that has been so important not only to Christians but also to Jews and Muslims.  It is important that this story of Abraham and Isaac and God must be allowed to stand as it is. The temptation must be resisted to explain in terms of the history of religions, as showing how the Jews refused to adopt the practice of child sacrifice, which was common among the religions in Canaan.  The temptation must be resisted to embellish this story, this story that is told in such stark and matter of fact terms, no psychologizing, no ad libbing, no trying to figure out what was going on in Abraham’s mind, or what Isaac was thinking going up that mountain.  The temptation must be resisted to use this story to show how we have outgrown the Old Testament God who would ask a father to sacrifice his son, the contrast between the God of anger and power and the New Testament God of love, and in this way not only to do a great disservice to Jesus’s God, who after all is Abraham’s God but in this way to also sentimentalize a story that has not a shred of sentimentality in it.

No. None of these things will do, for they are all evasions of what this event is about: it is about God and the nature of the faith of the individual in God.  Now this is most important for us all to hear, and very important for our Catechumens and Candidates here assembled.  For you also will be tempted to close your eyes to the journey you have undertaken, the journey up the mountain, and instead choose to see it as some sort of quaint initiation rite, or as some sort of learning experience to prepare you for the final exam or some sort of gushy group dynamics thing with religious overtones.  Resist all these blind alleys and let the story of Abraham and Isaac, which you will hear again at the Easter Vigil, hit you between the eyes and let you know about faith in God, what this means, and what you are taking on, where you are going, in your decision to become Catholics.

It is the obedience of Abraham, who is ready to sacrifice his beloved son that is of such great importance to Jews and Muslims.  The great mosque of the Dome of the Rock is built over the rock on which the Muslim believes is the rock on which Isaac was bound by Abraham.  That absolute obedience to the will of God is seen as the model of the just one, who, with total trust in God, obeys Him, does whatever is asked.  The obedience of Abraham is a model for Christians as well, but our focus is not only on the obedience but also and more importantly on the ground of that obedience, which is absolute trust in the faithfulness of God.  Now Isaac was not the only son Abraham had, but it was in Isaac, the son of his old age, that God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore.  Isaac would be the means of the fulfillment of the promise, the promise of the Covenant.  And now God demands Abraham to kill Isaac as a sacrifice.

It is precisely at this point that we must turn aside from the greatest temptation, which is to speak about this unspeakable act and pretend that this has something to do with ethics, with morality.   We can picture ourselves dialoguing with Abraham:  Look, what would you are about to do is murder, and worse, it is the killing of your own son.  But Abraham says nothing in response.  So you go on:  Now don’t picture yourself as some sort of Greek tragic hero like Agamemnon who sacrificed his daughter for the good of his country.  This is meaningless, absurd, and above all immoral.  The act is immoral and therefore is against the law of God.  To raise that knife is to commit mortal sin. Come to your senses.  How could the God of mercy, the God of love, the God who is good, who is the source of goodness, the ground of morality, how could you believe that this is what he wants you to do?  But Abraham still says nothing.  Abraham is silent, because what is there to say to you who have reduced religious faith to ethics, you who have tried to dialogue about something that is unspeakable, namely the faith relationship between the individual and God?

But you see, this is precisely what is at stake in our acceptance of this story as is, for this story can never be reduced to anything else than what it is:  the faithfulness of God and the individual’s faith in that faithfulness.  When Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son, he does not doubt God’s faithfulness for an instant.  Listen to what the book of Wisdom says—these words sting the heart:  “Wisdom knew the just man, kept him blameless and preserved him resolute against pity for his child.”  And again from Sirach:  “Abraham, father of many peoples kept his glory without stain, and when tested he was found loyal.”  But it is to the New Testament book of Hebrews that we must look to find that basic faith relationship that this story is all about:  “By faith Abraham, when put to the test (and that, by the way, is what lead us not into temptation means) offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name’.  He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol”.

Abraham believed in an absolute way in the faithfulness of God, even in this situation of sacrifice, of death, of what appears to the onlooker as absurd, that even if Isaac must die, God would remain true to his promises, and that God would do what seems impossible.  On the basis of this text the Fathers of the Church saw Isaac as the prefigure of Christ, for God did not spare his own Son, but handed him over for the sake of us all. In this story of Abraham and Isaac we stand before the mystery of redemption itself, the mystery of the Cross, the mystery of God’s faithfulness even in the darkest hour of death of the Son of God.

It is in the context of the Cross of Christ that we Christians must always hear this story, and it is from this story that we must look to the future, to our own lives, and to remember God’s promise to the whole earth, to remember his promise of faithfulness.  But this faith in God’s promise, in our own lives, must not be taken for granted.  It is always put to the test, we are always tempted not to believe it.  Sometimes God seems to contradict himself, to be bent on thwarting the fulfillment of his promise. There are times in our lives—and we all sitting here can thing of situations we face right now—times when we have to muster all our trust to continue to walk in the presence of God, the God who is faithful, the God who cares and loves above all, to walk in the presence of God even when God seem to be not present.  And how many of us in this situation have not cried out to God, and this crying out is not a lack of faith but evidence of our hope, our belief that there is someone real to cry out to.  In the words of the psalmist:  I believed, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”.  I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of living.

But then there is the ending to the story.  We have not spoken about it yet.  We can fool ourselves into seeing it as a happy Hollywood ending.  God just fooling around with Abraham, but not mean at all what he asked him to do.  We can breathe a sigh of relief as the angel tells him not to kill the child.  We smile as the ram miraculously appears in the thicket and then is offered instead of Isaac. But this is not the point of the story.  Isaac was returned to Abraham but he was given back to him by God in the transfigured state of one who has been sacrificed.  Isaac was no longer from that moment of truth merely Abraham’s beloved son whom he loved: he was that gift from God that had been transformed, transfigured into a symbol of the love of God, and this through Abraham’s act of faith.

This is what the disciples misunderstand on the mount of Transfiguration.  They misunderstand so deeply that Peter begins to babble, make small talk.  Just as we were tempted to babble about Abraham’s motives and obligations in the matter of sacrificing his son, so Peter is tempted and gives into that temptation to reduce the experience of the glory of God in the transfiguration to some sort of communal barbecue:  gee, folks, it’s good to be here. Let’s build some booths, one for Elijah, one for Moses, and one for you, Lord.  He did not understand, as Abraham did, that there is nothing to say when one is in this singular situation, which is the situation of responding to the faithfulness of God, which is shown forth in his glory.  For the disciples did not recognize the glory on the that mountain for what it was, and they did not recognize it when they saw it again but this time in all of its splendor, all of its radiance, all of its power and majesty, when they saw Jesus being lifted up on the cross, when he suffered and bled, when he died on that cross.  They could not connect this glory with the glory on the mountain, they could not see in this cross, this death, the absolute faithfulness of God to his promise of life.  They did not see what faith means, precisely the state of being in the dark but believing in the presence of the God of light and life.

They came down from that mountain bewildered and questioning.  They asked among themselves what “to rise from the dead” meant.  And that is the question for us today:  what does this say about your own faith?  What is your response to what the apostles saw on that mountain? What is your understanding?  What is your response in faith to this event?  What do you understand by the phrase “to rise from the dead”?  What do you announce to your brothers and sisters about the one who died and the Cross and rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of God?  These are questions to be pondered and answered in this season of Lent. Let us pray that we will confront these questions not with pious chatter, not with learned discourse, not with any talk at all, but rather in the silence of eternity where faith dwell the silence of the moment on Mount Moriah, the silence of the moment on Mount Tabor, the silence of the death of Christ…the silence of God.