Abraham, Isaac, and Sacrifice

Br. Kevin Andrew, O.P.'s picture
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The following is a transcript of Br. Kevin's preaching for Vespers on Sunday, March 3.

Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18:The Binding of Isaac by Caravaggio.

God put Abraham to the test. He called to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am!" he replied. Then God said: "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."  When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the LORD's messenger called to him from heaven, "Abraham, Abraham!" "Here I am!" he answered. "Do not lay your hand on the boy," said the messenger. "Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son."

As Abraham looked about, he 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.  Again the LORD's messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said: "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing- all this because you obeyed my command."

How do we define sacrifice? What is an appropriate sacrifice?  How do we repay God for creating us, for redeeming us, for blessing us, and for continuing to guide us?

Abraham didn’t ask these questions when God tested him.  Notice his change in character.  Previously, he had challenged God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and he and Sarah both doubted God’s ability to bless them with the child Isaac.  Not here, not now.  He cries, “Here I am!” when God calls him.  Any questions, any doubts he may have had, are long gone.  God had promised to give him a new land, and an everlasting heritage.  Both of these promises came very clearly and directly from God and no other source.  The land was not the land Abraham would have inherited from his ancestors, and the heritage would come through Isaac, the son God provided to Abraham by Sarah when he was 100 years old, and she was 90.  Neither of these gifts could be attributed to purely natural causes –to Abraham’s own work.  Abraham recognizes this and is willing to freely hand back to God what he had freely received.

Thankfully, God no longer tests his people as he tested Abraham.  As the ram took Isaac’s place on the wood of the altar, God’s own Son Jesus Christ takes our place on the wood of the cross.  However, Abraham’s willingness and gift is still a very powerful and productive symbol for us today.  We are still called today to offer sacrifice, to give back from the blessings we have received.  Our chapel’s altar of sacrifice is directly behind me, where each and every day we celebrate the Eucharist.  And in this daily sacrifice, we recognize again and again how all we have received, every blessing in our lives, is a gift from God.  Every one of our blessings today –food, study, leisure, and all the rest – are analogous to God’s blessing of Isaac to Abraham.  Following the same analogy, we must in the same way be ready to give them all back freely to God.

In the new translation of the Mass, the text for the Preparation of the Gifts reminds us of the nature of our sacrifices: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you…through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you.”  We can’t say, “Look, God, look at what we’ve done, what we’ve made, what we through our own merits have brought you.”  No, when we bring our gifts to the altar, we first of all recognize that all we can offer to God are the gifts themselves that God first gives us.

G.K. Chesterton discusses another aspect of sacrificial offerings, in his article Enjoying the Flood and other Disasters.  He points out that “the beast fitted for sacrifice must be spotless, healthy, and perfect.”  Jokingly, he imagines sacrificing to God the London cab-horses, then the cabmen, and finally the cab owners (the city’s wealthy elite who in his words “simply cry out for the sacrificial knife”).  He points out, however, that the necessary standard of perfection “seldom applies to the cab-horse, not often to the cabman, and never to the man in the cab.”

We too cannot offer to God imperfect sacrifice.  We cannot offer our vices as sacrifice.  One cannot say, “For Lent, I’ll give up dishonoring my parents, or stealing, or lying, or coveting.”  While it is good for one to recognize these vices, and through effort and prayer to give them up, this is not sacrifice.

We also cannot “hold back” when we sacrifice.  We cannot say, “For Lent, I’ll give up going out to lunch, and therefore have more money to spend.”  “For Lent, I’ll give up junk food and work out 4 times a week…and that way I’ll lose the 10 pounds I gained between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”  Our sacrifices may have beneficial side effects – giving up TV may give one more time to read or pray, giving up internet use may give one more sleep, giving up “lunches out” may very well give one more spending money.  But these effects cannot be our primary motivations when we bring our sacrifice to the altar of God.

Are we offering back to God the good things with which he’s blessed us?  Or are our intentions less pure, less focused?  It is a good time to examine our hearts, and turn our gaze towards Him who is all good and deserving of all our love.