The sacrifice of Isaac.
I’ve been traveling a lot recently. It’s hard on the family, I know. Two weeks ago, I was in Radnor, Pennsylvania, at a meeting of the Advisory Board to the John Templeton Foundation. Those of you who have any contact with the business and financial community know John Templeton as the architect of Templeton Mutual Funds. “Sir John”, as he is known, is now over eighty, not very tall and quite frail, yet still full of energy. The last time I heard, the Foundation’s assets stood at more than three-quarters of a billion dollars. Through the Foundation, Sir John is trying to foster deeper and broader inquiry into religion and spirituality. He has gathered around himself a board of advisors from science, medicine, theology, philosophy and the financial world to help him decide how to do it. Others on the board include Charles Townes, who received the Nobel Prize for inventing the laser and Paul Davies who writes beautiful popular books on physics that some of you may have seen. It’s a blast.
Sir John starts each meeting with a pep talk in which he lays out his agenda. This time something he said hit me like a brick. He said: “I have made a lot of money for over a million people. But I don’t know that I have made any of them happier.” It was said with such devastating simplicity and humility that, for a brief moment we looked into the heart of Everyman.
How do you begin to talk about God to a million people who have everything, yet find they have nothing? “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” asks Jesus in today’s gospel.
Yesterday I got back from a week in Boulder, leading an international NIMH workshop on statistical genetics. The sixty-two students were a diverse group of smart scientists from ten countries. At one of the social hours, after a hard day’s work, a young Australian graduate student came up to me. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he said. “No. Go ahead.” He went on: “Some of us were wondering how you reconciled genetics with the Christian belief in the Old Guy with a beard?”
How do you begin to talk about God to people who are so grown up in their knowledge of nature and yet so young in their knowledge of God? “The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men”, writes Paul to the Corinthians.
Whoever we are, wherever we travel, and wherever life takes us, we cannot escape the question of God. We cannot escape the question of God because we cannot escape reality. In the end, no amount of money can insulate us from the question of God because no amount of money can protect us from reality. Neither can our Science protect us from the question of God, because science is only a thin veneer laid over the uncontrollable fact that life is a form of human sacrifice.
Elie Wiesel, who has had to live with the fact that he survived the death camps, saw a reality that no amount of money could escape and no amount of science prevent. Carved into the stone of the Holocaust Museum in D.C. is his reaction to his first night in Auschwitz: “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.”
Just over two weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, the Church looked each of us in the eye and said sternly: “Remember, that you are dust and that you will return to dust”. “Get real, people”, says the Church, for we are in the reality business. Reality is human sacrifice.
Before we can begin to talk about God, we have to talk about reality. The closer we get to reality, the closer we come to God. The closer we come to God. The closer we come to reality. That is the Mystery of life.
Look again the story of Abraham and Isaac we’ve just read. It is one of those bits of Old Testament that we tend to write off as nothing more than a quaint part of religious history. Abraham thinks God wants him to sacrifice his son, but Abraham learns to be more sophisticated. He learns that God doesn’t require human sacrifice. You can read it like that if you want. It certainly suits our need for a domesticated God. However, I think the reality of the story is deeper than that. The reality of life is much more profound. The reality of life is that God seems to demand human sacrifice all the time.
That is the Mystery of today’s story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Horeb. It is the Mystery of the cross, which Jesus talks about in the Gospel today. Is there a mother or father alive who does not hold in their heart the mystery of Mount Horeb? Is there a parent alive who, like Abraham, has not nurtured their child and led them to the mountain-top only to stand by helpless to ward off the cruelty of the world? Who has not stood by their child, helpless and utterly dependent on the grace and gift of a life we did not create and a hope we cannot engineer? God knows, we all pray that God will provide the ram caught in the thicket.
All parents and all children that have ever lived stand with Abraham and Isaac on the Mount of sacrifice. They stand before a reality that makes no sense. They stand before a reality they ultimately do not control. They stand on the place that demands more sacrifice than they have the strength to bear. They stand on the mountain of human sacrifice where there is no hope but the ram of grace.
The deepest of all mysteries, the Mystery that gives us hope, the “Mysterium fidei” – the “Mystery of faith” we proclaim in our Eucharist – is that God meets us on the mount of sacrifice. Indeed, God and the sacrifice are one. This is the Mystery of the cross, defying words, that can only be expressed in the silence and darkness of Calvary.
As the gifts of bread and wine are prepared on the Altar in the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy, the priest recites a prayer that concludes with the words: “For Thou art he who offers and he who is offered, he who receives and who is distributed.” God and the sacrifice are one and the same. God is part of us at the moment of our greatest sacrifice.
A tenth century Byzantine communion prayer of St. Simeon the Story-teller has the words: “Lo, to divine communion I approach. O Maker, burn me not as I partake for fire Thou art, which the unworthy burns.”
As we come to the Altar today, we approach in the symbols of Christ’s body and blood, the burning mystery of human sacrifice. As we come to the Altar today, we approach in symbol the God of life who demands every fiber of our being every moment of our life. As we come to the Altar today, we approach in symbol that same reality of life that Abraham met on Mount Horeb. It is small wonder that we approach in fear and trembling. In fear of God, with faith and love, we draw near to the One who offers and the One who is offered: to the One who is received and who is distributed. For God is close to us in sacrifice. Amen.