It would be easy to skip the story of Abraham and Isaac that is linked with the Transfiguration of Jesus this Lent. In one of the hardest of the Old Testament readings, Abraham is told by God to go up Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son Isaac. Yet, Abraham had been promised that he would be the father of a great nation. Isaac was the only means by which this promise was to be fulfilled.
Still, Abraham prepared to do the unthinkable. To paraphrase a thought from the 20th century Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham “did not withhold himself.” In the end, what was given to Abraham by God once was given to him again: the promise and his son. But the journey up the mountain was torturous.
We too are called to relinquish the Isaacs of our lives, perhaps a person, event, situation dear to us. Our Isaac could be a goal we have set for ourselves or a relationship that doesn't work out. The real or anticipated loss of our own personal Isaac has the power to tear us up. We may want to cry out:
“You ask too much, God.” Courage and faith are needed to say; “I believe, God.”
Yet, God says to us as God said to Abraham, whose knife was raised over Isaac: “Do not lay your hands on him!” Only with the honesty of prayer do we know which Isaacs to sacrifice and when to refrain.
God shepherds us through human tragedy, injustice and meaningless suffering. We can depend on it.
In the Gospel, Jesus had begun his journey to Jerusalem and death, when he stopped and experienced the transfiguration.
Jesus shows us that there will be such moments in the midst of our own hard times, but beyond the moment, we will have to go on trusting that the apparent end is not the end, after all.
What is remarkable in the Gospel is that God, who would not permit the slaying of Isaac, does not withhold his own son. It is on his way to being handed over, that Jesus is transfigured, so that he and his disciples would not lose heart as the journey to death and darkness moved on to its climax. In the end Isaac was not killed. Jesus was. Who would have thought that the end was not the end for Jesus and that the Risen One would give new meaning to all the Isaacs we sacrifice for the good.