Saturday, March 03, 2012

Premonition of Calvary: The Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

One week into our Lenten journey, the Readings for this weekend’s Masses focus on passages that look ahead or anticipate Christ’s self-sacrifice on Calvary, which awaits us, as it were, in the “liturgical future,” on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

1. The First Readings is one of the most pivotal texts in the Old Testament, the “Calvary” of the old covenant era. This is what the Jewish tradition calls the Aqedah, the “binding” of Isaac.
The story is familiar to most: God commands Abraham to take Isaac to a certain mountain and sacrifice him there. Abraham obeys, but before Isaac is slain, God intervenes through an angel. A ram, caught in a thicket, is sacrificed instead of Isaac, and the story concludes with God’s oath of blessing on Abraham:

Reading 1: Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am!" he replied.
Then God said:
"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."

When they came to the place of which God had told him,
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD's messenger called to him from heaven,
"Abraham, Abraham!"
"Here I am!" he answered.
"Do not lay your hand on the boy," said the messenger.
"Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God,
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son."
As Abraham looked about,
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.

Again the LORD's messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
"I swear by myself, declares the LORD,
that because you acted as you did
in not withholding from me your beloved son,
I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
your descendants shall take possession
of the gates of their enemies,
and in your descendants all the nations of the earth
shall find blessing-
all this because you obeyed my command."
The opening of the chapter recalls God’s initial call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. In both cases, God calls Abraham to act in faith, to journey to a place unknown in advance, that God “will show him.” The point is, this event in Genesis 22 is an icon of Abraham’s whole life, a little drama that encapsulates the meaning of his entire spiritual journey.

The Mass Reading unfortunately elides (skips) much of the central part of the story, so certain crucial details are missing. Abraham loads Isaac with the wood for the burnt offering, but himself carries only the fire and the knife. Since antiquity, the implications were recognized: Isaac, by this time, must have been stronger than his elderly father, for he carries the heavier load. Thus we are not dealing with a child anymore, but a teen or young man. A further implication: Abraham could not have overpowered is stronger son at the top of the mountain. Therefore Isaac must have cooperated. It must have been “a death he freely accepted.”

Three times in this chapter Isaac is referred to as the “one and only” son of Abraham, using the uncommon Hebrew word yahid. The RSVCE2 translates yahid as “only begotten,” in order to catch the allusion of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world he gave is only begotten (Gk monogenes) son.” I agree with the RSVCE2 that St. John intends to render yahid with monogenes, and establish an Isaac-Christ typology. However, in the Septuagint, the Hebrew yahid is rendered with agapetos, “beloved,” which is also significant.

The foreshadowing of Calvary in Genesis 22 is obvious. Here we have the only begotten—or “beloved”—son, carrying the wood of his sacrifice up the mountain, finally to be laid on the wood and willingly offered to God by his father. Indeed, we are in the geographical location of Calvary. According to 2 Chronicles 3:1, Solomon built the Temple on Mount Moriah, the same location where Isaac was almost sacrificed. This is the Temple Mount; Calvary was only a short walk away, a little hill just outside the first-century walls of Jerusalem.

In Genesis 22, God is testing Abraham—and Isaac, too, for that matter. He is asking them, “Are you willing to participate in the kind of self-sacrificial love that I, the Holy Trinity, will have to demonstrate in order to save mankind.” Abraham and Isaac respond: “We are,” and confirm it by their actions. St. James remarks: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’; and he was called the friend of God” (James 2:21-23).

How could Abraham ever consent to the death of his son? Because of his faith in the resurrection: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.’ He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb 11:17-19).

The oath of blessing at the end of the narrative is often treated by scholars as a secondary addition by a redactor, but that can hardly be the case, as it is the theological climax of the story. An oath typically establishes a covenant: we are justified in understanding this oath as sealing the covenant that God first established with Abraham in Genesis 15 and confirmed in Genesis 17. He now gives this covenant its final form, swearing “by himself”—that is, taking responsibility to ensure that the provisions of the covenant are fulfilled—that “in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” This seed is Christ: see Gal 3:16 (although most translations render "seed" as "offspring" or somesuch).

2. The Responsorial Psalm is one of the most important Todah or “thanksgiving sacrifice” psalms in the entire psalter:
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19
R. (116:9) I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
I believed, even when I said,
"I am greatly afflicted."
Precious in the eyes of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
O LORD, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
you have loosed my bonds.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
My vows to the LORD I will pay
in the presence of all his people,
In the courts of the house of the LORD,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
The Refrain, “I will walk before the Lord,” picks up a theme from the First Reading. In Genesis 17:1, God commands Abraham to “walk before me and be blameless.” The word “walk” (halak) is repeated several times in Genesis 22, notably in verse 8: “So they walked, both of them (Abraham and Isaac) together …” It is as if the “righteous walking” demanded by God of Abraham in Genesis 17:1 is being fulfilled in Genesis 22. All of us who share the faith of Abraham, and understand the self-sacrifice that it entails, also “walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.”

The psalmist says, “To you I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

This “sacrifice of thanksgiving” (the Todah in Hebrew) was a special kind of animal sacrifice, offered not for sin or guilt, but in thanksgiving for some act of deliverance that God performed (see Lev 7:11ff).

The Todah is, of course, of tremendous significance for Eucharistic theology. “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving,” obviously. It is the eternal Todah. It is not coincidental that the Passover sacrifice was considered a form of the Todah, and it was the Passover that Jesus transformed into the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Psalm 116 was one of a set of Psalms (114-118) that were chanted or sung during the Passover liturgy. It’s worth re-reading Psalm 116 while imagining the words being spoken on the lips of our Lord just hours before the start of his Passion.

3. The Second Reading continues the themes of the First. Abraham did not spare his own son; neither did God the Father. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He … did not spare his own Son … will he not give us everything else?”
Reading 2: Rom 8:31b-34
Brothers and sisters:
If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son
but handed him over for us all,
how will he not also give us everything else along with him?

Who will bring a charge against God's chosen ones?
It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?
Christ Jesus it is who died-or, rather, was raised-
who also is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us.
4. The Gospel is the Transfiguration, an account I have always struggled to understand theologically, until grappling with it at the actual site (according to tradition) of the Transfiguration while on pilgrimage in Israel last May:
Gospel: Mk 9:2-10
Jesus took Peter, 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 fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
"Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
"This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.

As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.
Note that at the climax of the account, the voice of God says, "This is my beloved son," picking up the description of Isaac as the yahid, which as I mentioned, the LXX renders "beloved."

As many note, Moses and Elijah, while individuals, are also representative of the Old Testament, which the Jews called "the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah)."  Elijah was considered the greatest of the prophets.  So in this scene, we have the Old Testament (Moses and Elijah) testifying to the New (Jesus), which is also the structure of the readings for Mass.

The Transfiguration is actually an anticipation of Calvary. At first this seems counter-intuitive: on Mount Tabor, Jesus is glorified; but on Calvary, he is crucified. What can be the connection?
Yet this is the theology of the Gospel of John. Speaking of his approaching Passion, Jesus says in John 12:
 “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified” (v. 23). 
Again after being betrayed:
“Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified; if God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once (John 13:31-32). 
This is the mystery of our faith: God’s glory revealed through weakness, suffering, and humility. Any god can triumph by brute force; but a God who triumphs through humble sacrifice, through self-giving love?  Is this not a greater glory?


Nick said...

Where did they get the wood from if they lived in a desert?

Tarcissius said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John Bergsma said...

@Nick: the Jerusalem area is not a desert. It supports tree growth.

R Arturo Roa said...

It is encouraging to me to see the unity of salvation history here manifested so clearly. What the Lord started in Genesis 22 with Abraham and Isaac he perfects and completes in the sacrifice of Christ.
The Lord knows what he is about and proves His love by giving us the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.I had never made the connection between the only beloved son of Genesis 22 and the beloved son who's voice we should listen to in Mark 9.