Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Director, La Salette Shrine
One thing is certain. For Peter, James and John, after what they experienced on that mountain, everything was changed. For Abraham, after what he experienced on another mountain, everything was changed. One was an experience of glory. The other was a test.
And what a test! How could God do such a thing to Abraham? How could Abraham accept it without a fight? How could Isaac, presumably a teenager by this time, let himself be tied up and placed on the altar of sacrifice? These are questions that people raise in perfectly good faith. The whole thing seems incredible to us, impossible; which is our way of saying: “I couldn’t do that!”
Even granting, as I often say, that it was “another world,” in which it seems child sacrifice was practiced by the pagans, the sacrifice of Isaac is hard for modern readers to make sense of. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews offers the following explanation: “Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son... He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead...” (Heb. 11:17-19). That’s all well and good, but this was much more than a rational exercise!
In fact, that quotation from Hebrews is among the several verses recalling four moments in the life of Sarah and Abraham. Each episode cited, including this one, is preceded by the words, “By faith.”
Abraham was not passive. Remember how he argued with God in an effort to save Sodom and Gomorrah? The same relationship that allowed him to challenge God then, enabled him now to accept God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac—a relationship of perfect trust, based on deep faith.
Abraham’s total commitment to God, which began over forty years earlier, was his response to God’s total commitment to him. God chose him, guided him, defended him, made and kept generous promises to him. Abraham believed then, and did not stop believing now.
We probably all know good persons whose lives have been marked by seemingly endless tragedies and misfortunes, and who have persevered in a most admirable faith. I am reminded of the American Colonial poet Edward Taylor, who lost several infant children. He was a Congregational minister. In one of his poems he writes of the first two children that died. Not covering up his grief, he nevertheless recognizes that he brought those children into the world for God’s glory, and he concludes, “Take, Lord, they’re thine.” Incredible? Impossible? No. Magnificent!
What we witness on Abraham’s mountain is magnificent faith. The faith that has been nourished and strengthened over many years reaches its pinnacle in this moment. He has always believed in God’s love for him, and he isn’t going to doubt it now!
St. Paul reminds us, ““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?” He challenges us to demonstrate that same magnificent faith.
Abraham’s story has a happy ending. Even if it did not, the point would be the same: by faith, Abraham accepted God’s will, submitted to this tremendous test, and showed his total devotion to God. So, too, Jesus was “handed over” for us all, and his glorious resurrection confirmed the glory of his sacrifice.
What is faith that is never challenged? In a way, it’s like dancers or athletes whose skill has never been put to the test. They may be good, even very good, but not great, certainly not magnificent.
Considering that St. Peter witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus, and yet his faith faltered in his time of testing, I am not eager that my faith should be put to the test. But when it is, I pray that the gift of faith that the Lord has nourished these many years—including my own Transfiguration moments—may not falter, but rather look only to him in whom that faith is placed, and rely on him absolutely.
Can it be? Dare we hope that our own faith could actually be magnificent?