Scripture and the Liturgy

Premonition of Calvary: 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:

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 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.

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.  The ancient rabbis and other Jewish authors gave various ages for Isaac at this time, but all agreed he was an adult.  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 “beloved son” of the Baptism and Transfiguration (Mk 1:11; 9:7 and parallels) is also an allusion to Isaac.

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:

“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 in your seed shall all the nations of the earth
be blessed …”(Gen 22:15-18 excerpted)

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. Luke 1:72-73, in fact, refers to the “holy covenant” as the “oath which [God] swore to our father Abraham.”  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 (Gal 3:16).

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) 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).   There is a connection between the Aqedah of Genesis 22 and the Passover: just as Abraham offered sacrifice as God spared his legally “firstborn” son, so the Israelites would later offer sacrifice while God spared their firstborn sons on the original Passover night, when the angel of death “passed over” their houses.  The Passover was considered a special form of the Todah sacrifice in thanksgiving for this deliverance.

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 given in thanks for the Exodus, and it was the Passover that Jesus transformed into the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  Psalm 116 was one of a set of Psalms (113-118) called the Hallel (“Praise!”) that were chanted or sung during the Passover liturgy.  The Hallel psalms are probably the “hymn” that Jesus and the Apostles sang at the end of the Last Supper on their way out to Calvary.  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 of the Transfiguration (at least according to tradition) while on pilgrimage in Israel some years ago:

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.

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?  Is this not a greater glory?

Why do Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus?  As is well-known, Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets respectively, and together the “Law and the Prophets” referred to the entire Jewish Bible at that time (cf. Matt 5:17).  Furthermore, both these men were believed to have been assumed into heaven at the end of their lives: Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11, and Moses according to Jewish tradition (like the apocryphal work Assumption of Moses).  Thus, they were individuals already experiencing the beatitude of the divine presence, and able to appear on earth, unlike those souls still waiting in Sheol or Hades for the liberation that Christ’s resurrection would bring.

Peter misunderstands the significance of this conversation of Jesus with the two great heroes of Israel’s faith.  He sees Jesus on par with Moses and Elijah: three great prophets, each worthy of their own shrine or dwelling (“tents”).  He does not yet realize the disproportionate superiority of Jesus: not just a prophet, he is the incarnate son of God; indeed, God Himself.  As God incarnate, Jesus is in himself the definitive revelation: so in the end, the Apostles see “no one but Jesus alone.”

Jesus himself makes the link with Calvary, telling the Apostles to keep quiet about this apparition until after he has “risen from the dead.”  The Apostles, who earlier had taken Jesus overly literally when he warned them about the “yeast of the Pharisees” (Mark 8:15), now take Jesus overly figuratively, wondering what “rising for the dead” might mean!

The Gospel of Mark is explicit here that Jesus knew in advance he was going to die and rise from the dead.  Modern scholars, including many teaching at Catholic institutions, don’t believe Mark or the other Gospels on this point, because they do not believe in the divinity of Christ and/or they do not believe in predictive prophecy.  But you and I can believe the Gospel authors: they are, after all, the earliest biographers of Jesus, and they are all agreed that he predicted his death and resurrection.  No one has any actual evidence to the contrary.

The Transfiguration was a consolation to strengthen the faith of the three primary Apostles as they undertook with Jesus his final “death march” to Jerusalem.  (The first three Gospels agree that the Transfiguration marked the turning point in Jesus’ ministry where he turned to journey toward Jerusalem for his final Passover and Passion.)  As we continue our Lenten journey toward Passion Week, let’s pray at this Mass that we see Jesus for who he really is: not just another prophet, guru, philosopher or founder of a religion, like Zoroaster, Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, Guru Nanak, Plato, or some other.  Not even a prophet like the true prophets of Israel, like Moses and Elijah.  No, rather, let us pray that we see him as he truly is: the creator God, taken on human flesh.  And let’s pray that our lifestyles may reflect an appropriate reaction to that fact: namely, a lifestyle of continual worship. 

On that thought, I’ll close with an appropriate thought for Lent from St. Josemaría:

If you really want to be a penitent soul — both penitent and cheerful — you must above all stick to your daily periods of prayer, which should be intimate, generous and not cut short. And you must make sure that those minutes of prayer are not done only when you feel the need, but at fixed times, whenever it is possible. Don’t neglect these details.   If you subject yourself totally to this daily worship of God, I can assure you that you will always be happy.

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