Monday, March 17, 2014

Faith Is Not a Feel Good Story

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
Genesis 22: 1-14

ReflectionFor some time now I’ve wanted to do a bit of Old Testament blogging. I am aware from my work as a priest that the O.T. is still largely a closed book to many Catholics, confusing, daunting, forbidding at times. I truly love it, and always love to teach and speak on it, but am aware that it is problematic for many. So this week I think I’d like to take some of my favorite passages and reflect on them, in the service of Lenten reflection on the Word of God.

This one is one many find difficult indeed—the picture of a God who would ask for a child sacrifice is not one we find easy to reconcile to Jesus. Of course God is precisely not asking Abraham to actually perform this act, but forbids it, and being God is certain of His ability to do the forbidding before the act can occur. Part of the original meaning of the story was, in fact, to make clear that the God of Abraham was not a god of child sacrifice, unlike many of the surrounding gods of the other tribes.

But there is a lot more to be said about this passage of course, so much that I won’t be able to say it all in a blog post. I think one good entry point into this passage would be to ask what the story of Abraham would look like without this episode. It would be this: God calls Abram. God makes promises to Abram/Abraham. God fulfills his promises to Abraham. The End.

Well… that’s a nice story… kind of flat, though, don’t you think? ‘Local Chaldean Man Makes Good’, kind of thing. A feel good story, but not a whole lot of resonance, not a whole lot of depth to it. God says good things will happen if you do this thing; you do this thing; good things happen. Sort of like putting money in a vending machine and pushing the right buttons and out comes the candy bar. Well, that’s… nice, I guess.

God is not a vending machine, and his promises and their realization in our lives is not a candy bar. This episode on the mountain breaks the story of Abraham open and plunges it into a depth of faith, trust, mystical heights and depths that we are still surveying 3000 years later.
God calls, God promises, God fulfills, and then… God tests. God is not interested in just some sort of lame commercial agreement, like a sales contract. He wants to know what is inside Abraham – does this man really trust Him? Personal relationship, personal communion, a love affair, not a transaction. 

And in this testing of Abraham and the willing sacrifice of Isaac of course we see resonances with God the Father and the God the Son and the sacrifice of Christ. God tests Abraham and we see the faith of this man. Jesus dies on the Cross and we see the faithful love and tender mercy of this God.

And of course this plays out in all of our lives. God does call, He does promise… and He does test us. 
Do we believe that God will fulfill His promise in our lives in His way, that He will provide for the blessed outcome of our lives? That’s what Isaac was for Abraham, after all, the blessing of God making his life a success.

God ‘tests’ us in all sorts of ways, when our lives hit rough and painful patches, when things fall apart, when we are grieved, bereaved, broken down, battered by it all. What is in us? Will we put our faith in the Lord and be found righteous? Will we place our Isaac on the altar of obedience and love, and trust God to realize His love in our lives? It is the answer to these questions that is the real dynamism of faith, grace, and salvation in our lives, and it all began on this mountain in the land of Moriah 3000 years ago, when a man and his boy went up a mountain and plunged into the heart of the heart of the mystery of God, a mystery that still beckons to us all today.


  1. People need to feel good about the church, it's teachings and the priests who comprise the teaching authority.

    If they see the church as a reactionary institutions, the teachings as not relevant to contemporary life and the priests as parasites and predators upon themselves and their families, the church will die and that is what's happening now.

    Look at the age and the type of people who are currently active in the church. They are old and uninterested in being inclusive of the majority of people of any age.

    The church is dying and that seems to be what you want. Shame on you. The church is for all. The sacraments for all. Jesus for all.

    1. Well, Moe...I think few would rate the revitalization and renewal effort a rousing success. Many Catholics would argue that their church has changed far too little, others that it has changed far too much or in the wrong ways, and even others would condemn those impertinent enough to dare rate their Church's success at all.
      How do you love all those people? How to you stay in the middle? How do you show respect for ones history, one's values and tradition and still drive onto the future? I read somewhere a quote from Pope Francis "fidelity is always a change a blossom, a growth".
      We have to figure out a way to have our differences and still see past them. To see Jesus.
      Anyway, back to this post.
      A few years ago I read this in the catechism- this idea that God tests us. It is hard for me to understand this.
      Partly because there is a kind of suffering which is outside of God's will...a result of the darkness in the world and inside our own hearts. This type of suffering I think God allows in sheer respect of freedom. It is hard for me to honk of this type of pain and suffering as some sort of testing by God. For God knows everything, even the secrets in the quiet recesses of our minds and hearts...And loves that too.
      I have come to understand this testing as a kind of clarifying, a kind of purifying...a habit of self reflection perhaps...a process where the goodness of the self or the soul of God in made known ...and endures and remains relevant to all our changing and challenges.
      Is that it? Is that what you are saying, Father Denis?
      Bless you


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