Well you couldn’t find three more wonderful scripture readings than those presented to us today: The Sacrifice of Isaac, the famous passage from Romans “With God on our side who could be against us?” and St Mark’s account of the Transfiguration.
We call that incident from the Book of Genesis the Sacrifice of Isaac, but, of course, we recognise that there was no actual sacrifice. But I suppose it felt very real to them at the time. Abraham certainly intended to sacrifice his son and it was only the intervention by God at the very last moment that saved the boy.
It seems a very cruel story especially when seen in the context of Abraham’s life. Following God’s commands Abraham had cut himself off from his past and gone into an unknown land. The promise made to him by God was that he should have many descendents and Isaac the fruit of this promise was conceived only after a long time and much difficulty.
Now God really does put Abraham’s faith to the test because he is being asked to sacrifice this precious child who is the key to God’s own promise. Abraham’s past has been cut off and it now seems as though his future is to be cut off too.
This command of God is utterly incomprehensible. The child promised by God is to be given back to him in sacrifice. God seems so cruel; he is not only about to break his own promise but he rubs in the gravity of the sacrifice he demands by saying “your only son Isaac, whom you love.”
Despite this seeming cruelty from a fickle God Abraham doggedly carries out his commands. He travels three days to the assigned place, makes all the necessary preparations and diligently does what the Lord has asked.
At the eleventh hour the Angel of the Lord intervenes and in effect declares that Abraham has passed the test. But there is no rejoicing from Abraham, he simply takes the ram caught in the bush and sacrifices it instead. We have here only an edited version of the text but there is no expression of emotion anywhere in it. This gives the story what writers have called an “ancient magnificence”.
There are many levels to this extraordinary story and only one of them is the testing of Abraham. But perhaps we ought to look instead to Isaac. He is the child of the promise. He is the one on whom the future depends. He is the gift of God given in Abraham and Sarah’s extreme old age. Perhaps this whole episode is about God helping Abraham to understand much more deeply that Isaac is God’s pure gift.
Of course, at the time of his birth the old couple would certainly have acknowledged the arrival of this child as a miracle. But still they would think of it as ‘their’ child. They did the conceiving and the rearing and all the rest, and Isaac is according to them ‘their’ son.
So maybe in this incident God is letting them know that Isaac is God’s child not theirs; that this boy on whom so much depends is God’s utterly free gift to them. He is not only given to them in a miracle but is taken away and then given back again in yet another miracle.
We read this text, of course, from a particular historical standpoint and in it we tend to see Isaac as a prefigurement of Christ. You can draw the many parallels between Isaac and Christ for yourself.
Like Isaac, Christ is God’s utterly free gift to us and so is the salvation he brought for us. It comes to us completely free and we need always to be aware of this.
We did absolutely nothing to earn our salvation and indeed, no matter how perfectly we live our lives, we do not, and cannot ever, deserve it. Salvation is God’s freely chosen gift to us. And we must acknowledge our utter dependence on this greatest of all acts of love.
When we turn our attention to the Transfiguration we find ourselves up on the top of another mountain. In Mark this incident occurs immediately after Christ’s first prediction of his passion, death and resurrection.
And on the mountain Jesus is revealed to the select group of Apostles in all his divine glory. The presence of Moses and Elijah, the dazzling brightness, the cloud which covered them, and the voice of approval from God all these confirm that Jesus is the Son of God.
We are being told that it is in this light that the immediately prior prediction of the passion and resurrection must be understood.
Like Isaac, Jesus is the promise of God. He is the one on whom salvation depends. However, unlike Isaac, Jesus will actually be the sacrifice which brings about our salvation.
The closest group of apostles get a glimpse of Jesus’ true nature. They are not only told that he is the Son of God, they see that he is the Son of God. His conferring with Moses and Elijah shows that he is in true line with them, indeed that he is the fulfilment of everything they stood for.
The understanding of the Apostles is imperfect. This is only to be expected; they are confused by these events and they are quite unable to realise their significance at the time. This is shown in the bumbling words of Peter. But they remember what happened that day on the mountain and much later, in the light of the resurrection, they see the meaning of that most extraordinary event.
The passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans is literally a hymn to God’s love as expressed in Jesus Christ and it is a perfect complement to the other two more weighty readings.
We are in the law courts; that’s the language Paul is using. I used to be a chaplain in a women’s prison and when I read this text to them the prisoners understood Paul’s words perfectly. They knew all about witnesses being on your side. They knew exactly what it meant to be vindicated in a court of law.
The subject of acquittal was the constant topic of the intercessory prayers that they made at mass. How frequently have I read out a prayer written by a prisoner which goes: Please pray that I get a walk-out when I go to court on Monday. Walk-out being their word for release.
But in the reading Paul is speaking about no earthly law court. This is the law court of heaven. This is the Final Judgement. On that day we certainly need Christ himself on our side otherwise we are sure to be condemned. By ourselves we are completely defenceless, entirely guilty, and we would need to shake in our shoes with fear. But as Paul says With God on our side who can be against us?
We need Christ, the free gift of God, to stand beside us. He has already paid the price for our sins with his sacrifice on the Cross. He is the true Son of God who stands at God’s right hand and pleads for us. The infinite love and power of God are revealed in him and he quite freely bestows on us his infinite love and mercy.
In the light of these wonderful things all we can do is praise and thank and bless his holy name.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket