Brief synopsis of the readings: “God put Abraham to the test.” Abraham was with his son Isaac when God commanded Abraham to take Isaac and sacrifice him. Abraham then took his son and tied him to an altar and was prepared to stab him to death. But then an angel commanded Abraham not to kill Isaac as Abraham had shown himself obedient to God. Abraham then found a ram and sacrificed it. God then made a covenant with Abraham, promising him “descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.” In Mark’s Gospel Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a high mountain. There the disciples saw Jesus transfigured. His clothes were dazzlingly white, and both Moses and Elijah appeared with him and the three spoke. Then the disciples heard a voice that said: “This my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” Moses and Elijah then disappeared. On the way down the mountain Jesus warned them not to tell anyone what they had seen.
Several months ago I read a letter to an advice columnist. A man wrote because he received a call from his girlfriend that disturbed him. She told him that she was having a medical emergency and asked him to leave work to care for her. When he said he was on his way, she replied that she wasn’t having an emergency but was testing him to see if he would. She was pleased that he “passed her test.” He was upset because he felt manipulated by his girlfriend and suspected this would not be her last test. The columnist (and I agreed) that he needed to have a tense and frank discussion and insist that she not do that again.
I can’t help feeling some of that when I read today’s first reading. Years ago I had a discussion with a man who was so horrified by God’s demand that Abraham kill Isaac that he refused to attend mass on the Sunday it was read. He told me that he understood that belief in God involves sacrifice but he just couldn’t worship a God who demanded that he prove his faith not only by killing someone, but by killing his own son. This was made even worse by the fact that Abraham and Sarah spent so many years unable to have children.
In fairness, though, we do need to give this some historical context. The idea of human sacrifice was known in the ancient world in places from the Egyptians to the Aztecs. Sometimes it was done to placate a pagan god, and sometimes it was done when a ruler died and it was felt that the ruler’s servants should also die to continue to serve him after death.
And our horror may also be a sign of our increased reverence for life on all levels. Those designated for sacrifice were often slaves, servants, or prisoners of war and their lives weren’t less valuable, they lacked value at all and their deaths meant nothing.
Now, in 2021, we are much more concerned with the value not of all lives, but each life. We are obsessed with the unborn, Black Lives Matter and who gets preferences in COVID vaccines and many of us see this as a sign of our divisions. But I think it’s a sign of our progress.
In any case, there is a point to this first reading that I think we still need to mine. We can all agree that at times we may lose something or someone we hold dear but more to the point we often don’t choose what we lose.
As a hospice chaplain I spent countless hours with people who experienced the death of a parent or grandparent, and even though they knew in advance it was probably going to happen it was still painful. I also spent equally countless hours with those who losing a spouse. They often talked about how their vow of “in sickness and in health” and “till death do us part” didn’t mean as much 50 or 60 years earlier but only now do they understand.
And yes, I did experience watching parents lose a child. By far this was the worst loss I’ve seen. None of them saw it coming and none of them deserved it. I pray nobody reading this experiences that level of pain.
But when these tragedies find us we have a choice to make. Does this bring us closer to God or farther away? Tragedy calls us to look at ourselves and the world through different eyes. If a tragedy drives someone away from God I offer no judgement but I do pray that it will call that person to find healing in God. If you’ve never read the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner, I recommend it.
Pain often calls us to rethink those things we thought we knew. If we ever believed that good deeds will absolve us of suffering I pray we no longer believe that. But the events in today’s Gospel called Peter, James, and John to a different understanding of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four Gospels, and by this reading we can understand that his disciples didn’t have a full understanding of Jesus as the Son of God. But when they heard the voice from the cloud who instructed them to listen to the “Son of God” they saw Jesus in an entirely new light.
Discipleship does not guarantee an end to our suffering. In some ways, in some places, discipleship may add to our suffering, particularly when we care called to stand up to prejudice. But at the end of our first reading God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be without limit. We are those descendants.
And I pray our faith gives us the courage to endure and find strength in our belief in God. I pray that it calls us to look at Jesus as God’s Beloved Son.