Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”  Genesis 22:2

Many years ago I read of a lady who had lost her son in the Second World War.  She had reconciled herself as best she could to the loss, and part of that reconciliation was to keep his room exactly as he had left it the day he went off to war.  She said she would often go into the room and merely sit and reflect on those things that had been so familiar to him.  While my heart is torn by the thought of someone losing a child, I can only imagine what the pain would be.  Only the person who has experienced it can really know what it is.  For that reason, I find the first scripture reading from Genesis captures my attention.

Here is Abraham.  God has blessed him, giving him and his wife a son, Isaac, born to their old age.  From Abraham God will make a chosen people.  Abraham will be the Father of the Jewish People, but before all this can happen God asks the unmentionable.  God asks Abraham to take his only child, Isaac, and kill him in sacrifice.  God says, “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” (Genesis 22:1-2).  Abraham does not protest.  He does not even ask the obvious question, “Why?”  Abraham already knows the answer to that question.

Simply, the sacrifice of Abraham is an example of a perfect sacrifice because it is offered in fidelity.  The Old Testament rejoices exultantly in a total obedience of faith, and God expects an even more perfect faith from a patriarch like Abraham.  In an ancient Jewish commentary on this passage, it describes angels in heaven looking on.  It reads:  “Angels from on high said:  ‘Come and see two most special persons in all the universe:  the one who sacrifices does not hesitate to do so, and the one who is sacrificed offers his throat” (Targum of Jonathan on Genesis 22:10).  We simply cannot judge this episode by our modern standards.  It is not a story of a misguided man who gleefully goes to kill his son.  It is the story of a patriarch who without question shows his fidelity to God by consenting to do the unthinkable.  Both the father and son are faithful, and in being extraordinarily faithful, they prove themselves worthy of the trust that God will place in them.

I wonder if you have ever looked at the stained glass window to the right above the altar here in our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.  Every stained glass window tells a story, and this one depicts the story of Abraham raising the knife to sacrifice Isaac.  Opposite that window is another window of a priest celebrating Mass.

As Catholics, we see a connection.  As a matter of fact we get this connection between Abraham sacrificing Isaac and God the Father sacrificing Jesus from the early Christians.  There is an ancient wall painting in the Catacomb of St. Calistus in Rome of the Abraham and Isaac story dating back to the 3rd century.  Our stained glass windows here in the Cathedral represent that ancient interpretation.

The early Christians saw in Isaac a prophet image of Christ.  St. Paul has left us a reference to this that must have echoed at the early Masses celebrated in those catacombs.  “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?” (Romans 8:32).  Just as Abraham was willing to give up his Isaac in sacrifice, so God the Father is willing to sacrifice His Son.  Abraham’s sacrifice and Isaac’s willingness proved their fidelity to God.  God the Father’s willingness to sacrifice Jesus proves His willingness to save us.  So, St. John can write, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).  This statement is not just a teaching on the importance of faith.  It is an affirmation that God saves those who join themselves to His Son in a redeeming death.

Isaac willingly went to his death.  Jesus willingly took up his cross and went to His.  In Isaac’s case a ram, a male lamb, would take his place.  Abraham “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” (Genesis 22:13).  In Jesus’ case, He will be the lamb.  As St. John the Baptist points out in the Gospel of St. John, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  We repeat those very words at every Mass.  Imagine the early Christians of the 3rd century, huddled together in the Catacomb of St. Calistus, fearing arrest by the Roman authorities, celebrating the Eucharist, repeating those same words that we do, looking up at their painting of Abraham and his willing sacrifice of Isaac, then opening their mouths to receive the Lamb of God.  It all fit together.  It all made sense.  They were participating in a perfect sacrifice.  What Jesus did was a fulfillment of a prophetic plan.  God was their Father too.  Everything they did, all that they might be asked to sacrifice, even their very lives, was a share in the life, death and resurrection of the “beloved Son”, in whom the Father was well pleased (cf. Mark 9:7, Matthew 17:5).

Perhaps next time we receive our Lord in Holy Communion here in this Cathedral, we will look up at the window of Abraham and Isaac.  When we do, we might pause to reflect on the meaning of what it is we are doing.  We might utter a prayer of thanksgiving for sharing in the life-giving sacrifice of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.