As I ponder on that very troubling first reading where Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, my mind keeps reverting back to another troubling story that came to light in Cape Town in the last few days. The headline said it all: “Stolen child found after 17 years”. Zephany Nurse was 3 days old when she was stolen from her mother’s side 17 years ago. The parents searched in vain for her ever since. Until now! By an extraordinary coincidence Zephany’s sister started attending the same school this year and just about everyone remarked on the similarities of the two girls who were four years apart in age. When the parents heard about this they investigated further and DNA tests proved that yes, Zephany, who of course had been given another name, was indeed their daughter.
God knows how this will pan out in the future and how Zephany will come to terms with this traumatic secret that has been kept from her all her life. We hope and pray that she will find her peace and healing in the coming years. While all the attention is on her a psychologist has asked us to give a thought to the woman who stole the baby. She asked for understanding and compassion explaining that maybe this woman had lost a baby or perhaps couldn’t have a baby of her own, and that her instinct to be a mother was so strong, that she was driven to do this. It doesn’t in any way exonerate her but it spells out to all of us once more just how strong a motherly instinct can be.
The fatherly instinct can be just as powerful and I’m sure it was running deep in the veins of Abraham as he was asked to sacrifice his son. Remember he had waited a long time, well into his old age, to be father to his precious son Isaac. It was through Isaac that God made all his promises for the future. And now God was asking Abraham to sacrifice this very son. We are given the shortened version today which omits all the finer details like the boy carrying the wood for the burnt offering and Abraham carrying the fire and the knife and then the young lad asking: “the fire and the wood is here but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” What pathos!
How could a loving God do this? One theory is that Abraham, influenced by neighbouring religions where child sacrifice was prevalent, felt he had to sacrifice his child. Then, on the mountaintop, God revealed to him that child sacrifice is not part of God’s will. On the contrary, it is abhorrent to God. That explanation might well be the case but the author seems to be hinting at something deeper, namely, how deep is Abraham’s trust in God. We are told that God was testing Abraham. The crucial point then is, ‘would Abraham put his trust in God before anyone else?’ Abraham was asked to choose either the promises of God as they would be fulfilled in Isaac, or the very God who made the promises in the first place? Abraham was not found wanting. Without understanding how the promises will be fulfilled if Isaac is put to death, he still trusts in God.
Paul, in the second reading, is asking for a similar trust. He insists that, regardless of what we might have to endure in life, God’s love for us cannot be questioned. God’s love for us is so great that he didn’t spare his own Son. Again, it wasn’t that God wished the death of Jesus, or was paying a ransom for us by his death. Rather it was Jesus willingly going to his death, rather than compromise with the forces of evil and thereby deny his identity as God’s beloved son.
The transfiguration was a special moment of enlightenment where the identity of Jesus is revealed to three amazed disciples. The voice from the cloud identifies Jesus as God’s beloved Son and they are mandated to listen to him. Listening to Jesus proved the difficult part, especially when, on their descent from the mountain, Jesus gives them a reality check of sorts. Instead of trying to dwell in the heights or joyously spread the news of what they had seen and heard, they were to be quiet until “the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Implied in Jesus’ words is the truth that before there would be any more glimpses of glory, he would die. Jesus wants his disciples to understand his identity, not in terms of glory and esteem, but in being faithful to God’s will.
The experience on Mount Thabor was a luminous moment for the disciples and it underscores the importance of getting away from it all so as to gain a perspective that cannot be had in the midst of the fray. Perhaps the psalmist put it best: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). These mountain stories set the theme for Lent as a time to ease ourselves out of the hustle and bustle of everyday activity so as to pray quietly, fervently seeking God’s will and then asking for the strength to make it our own. On our “mountain,” we can rethink priorities, set goals and evaluate our relationship with God and with others. It is also a time for realizing that God is God and I am not. God is at once inscrutable and yet willing to be known intimately — and when we come to grips with that, we can surrender ourselves to the mystery.
In turn it will illuminate the mystery of our own being, who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Identity is a struggle for all of us. It is a huge struggle for 17-year-old Zephany at the moment as she comes to terms with who her real parents are. Perhaps, like the rest of us, she can only find a true answer, in realising that she is first and foremost a child of God. This is our deepest reality and our deepest belonging. It is the belonging that Abraham and Jesus have so powerfully illustrated for us today.
Sunday, 1 March 2015