lent The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

A Death That Gives Life

GENESIS 22:1-3, 9, 10-13, 15-18
ROMANS 8:31-34
MARK 9:2-10

Several months ago, the television and print media carried the story of a seven-year-old boy who died in tragic circumstances while on vacation with his family in Italy. Armed thieves, attempting to take the family’s car and valuables waited in ambush in the Italian countryside. As the car passed, thieves sprayed a shower of bullets at the vehicle. Although the family was able to escape, some of the bullets had hit the young boy, while he slept in the back seat. A short time later, the child was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. People were shocked and outraged as the sad news was reported. But public outrage was soon replaced by wonder and admiration.

The boy’s family arranged that all of their son’s vital organs be harvested and donated. As a result, the lives of eight Italians, each of whom received one or more of the child’ healthy organs, were forever changed. For some it meant being able to see again; for others death was postponed because a young vital organ had replaced an aged, defective one. Because organ donation was such a rarity in Italy, the gift of life was all the more remarkable.

As I heard the story of the young boy and learned of the aftermath of his death, I was reminded of another time and place and the death of another son, whose dying brought life to so many. It is the life-giving death of this other son, viz., Jesus, which is the focus of our scripture readings for today.

The moving narrative of Abraham and Isaac which comprises today’s first reading (Genesis) has been understood as an Old Testament type or prefigurement of God’s willingness to offer Jesus as a sacrifice for human sin. As the ancient author noted, Isaac was Abraham’s son, an only son (if Ishmael is discounted), a loved son. To give him up to God was equivalent to relinquishing the future, for it was believed, at this time in Israel’s history, that parents lived on in their progeny. Abraham’s faith was so intense as to surpass human rationality; his trust in God was greater than his own desire for perpetuity.

Paul, in the second reading, reminds his Roman readers, and us, that God’s love has no limits. God has given the greatest gift of all to the world in the handing over of Jesus. Can anyone doubt that God would not give every other lesser gift as well? Indeed, when compared to the gift God gives in Jesus, all else pales into insignificance. Nevertheless, Paul’s words offer encouragement to believers, who may be burdened with worries, difficult times or other struggles inherent in the human experience. In a sense, Paul is saying, look at the big picture; gain some perspective and be at peace.

In today’s gospel, the Marcan transfiguration scene features a voice speaking from an overshadowing cloud. Identifying Jesus as God’s beloved son, the voice further enjoined the disciples to listen to him. As the gospel is proclaimed today, the voice is directed, not only at Peter, James and John, but at every contemporary disciple; the voice instructs believers, yet again, to listen to the words and works of Jesus, and to find therein the message of life and salvation.

GENESIS 22:1-3, 9, 10-13, 15-18

In the short span of his 42 years of life, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish philosopher and theologian, published several major works which earned him the title “father of modern existentialism.” So great was his influence on Catholic and Protestant philosophers and theologians that he has been compared to an Augustine or to a Pascal.

Kierkegaard, in Either-Or, his first major work, described life as a choice between an aesthetic attitude, in which a person drifts along from one pleasure to another, and an ethical one in which freedom is gained by a self-imposed acceptance of law and duty. Whereas the aesthete refuses to commit to anything permanent, the ethical person accepts the limitations of his/her choices and becomes a “real person.” But as Kierkegaard pointed out, sooner or later, the ethical person is faced by the predicament that his/her freedom is subject to a higher, transcendent power, viz., God.

As an example of an authentically religious and ethical person, Kierkegaard cited Abraham. In the moment, he acquiesced to God’s will and, in faith, surrendered himself and his love for Isaac “before God,” Abraham became truly free, real and religious.

For centuries, Abraham’s authentic faith has been celebrated in the artwork of both Jewish and Christian believers. The impending sacrifice of Isaac was featured as early as the synagogue of Dura Europos (ca. 245 C.E.) and in the Christian catacombs. A type of the sacrifice of Jesus, the gift of Isaac by Abraham was also interpreted in the Middle Ages as a type of the Eucharist.

Besides the narrative’s central focus on the faith and obedience of Abraham, there is a secondary and vitally important lesson taught regarding human sacrifice. Among several cultures of the ancient world, there existed the heinous practice of sacrificing children by fire to the gods. Canaanites immolated their sons to appease Molech; the Ammonites did the same to ward off the anger of Milcom and the Mari texts cite similar references concerning the god Muluk. During the ministry of Elisha (ca. 800 B.C.E.) an Israelite author chronicled the wickedness of the king of Moab, who burned his son on the city walls to effect a victory in war from the god Chemosh (2 Kings 3:27). Unfortunately, such practices also defiled the monotheistic faith and liturgical purity of Israel; a few kings resorted to child sacrifice in their desperate and misguided attempts to manipulate God (2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6).

In the divine sparing of Isaac, Israel was to learn that theirs was a God who was not appeased by human sacrifice but by the sacrifice of a contrite spirit and a humbled heart (Psalm 51:19). When the prophet Micah was approached for his opinion on this issue, he was asked, “With what gift shall I come before the Lord? . . . Shall I come with holocausts, with calves a year old? . . . with thousands of rams? . . . with myriad streams of oil? . . . Shall I give my firstborn for my crime, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7).

In Micah’s response to this shocking spate of questions, readers will discover what sounds like a verbal profile of Abraham.“ This is what is required of you: only to do the right, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Because Abraham did the right, loved goodness and walked humbly with God, adherents of the world’s three major faiths, Islam, Judaism and Christianity call him father and find a blessing in him (v. 18).

ROMANS 8:31-34

In keeping with the suggested theme for Lent, i.e. of shifting our focus and energies away from self in order to look at God and others in a new way (see introductory comments for First Sunday of Lent), Paul invites his readers to ponder the fact of God’s love. In words that make the human heart race with excitement, Paul assures believers that God is not only Emmanuel, God with us; God is also FOR us (v. 31). Given that support and sustenance, can any opponent or obstacle deter God’s chosen ones?

The love of God, upon which Paul wished his Roman correspondents to focus, was first acclaimed earlier in his letter when the apostle wrote, “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts” (5:5). On the basis of that assertion, Paul went on to explore the ramifications of God’s love for humankind in the ensuing chapters of his letter, reaching a climax here in chapter eight.

Scholars agree that Romans 8:31-39 exhibits a hymnic quality; V. Taylor (The Epistle to the Romans, Epworth Press, London: 1955) called these rhythmic verses “an impassioned testimony to the all-sufficiency of the love of Christ for us, a testimony which is without parallel in the world’s literature.”

As an illustration of the immeasurable depth and degree of God’s love, Paul reprised the pathos of the Genesis narrative (first reading); the words, “God did not spare his own son” (v. 32) were evocative of Abraham’s willingness to give even his beloved Isaac to God. If God has given the ultimate gift in Jesus, “handing him over for the sake of us all” (v. 32), is there anything that God would deny to humankind?

Joseph Fitzmyer (Spiritual Exercises Based on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Paulist Press, New York: 1994) has suggested that Paul’s hymn to God’s love, and the rhetorical questions which accompany it, are better understood in the context of an imaginary law court. The defendant in this case is the Christian who has been justified by Christ’s death and resurrection and, therefore, has no cause to fear anything or anyone. Paul plays devil’s advocate, or prosecutor, asking a series of questions which have already been answered in the salvific Christ-event. God, of course, is the judge who has not only acquitted humankind of sin but continues to love all people with a love that forgives and continually restores sinners to innocence.

No one can bring a charge, nor can anyone condemn those who have Christ Jesus as their paraclete; a Greek term, one of the several meanings for paraclete is advocate or defense attorney. As the risen Jesus continues to intercede for sinners at God’s right hand, the Spirit remains with us to help and guide, to teach, counsel and empower (Romans 8:11, 13, 14, 16, 26-27, etc.).

When the daily struggles of conversion and commitment cause Jesus’ contemporary disciples to lose focus, Paul’s hymn of love will help in regaining perspective; God is FOR us, who can be against us?

MARK 9:2-10

Shortly before he was gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King (1929-1968) told the assembled crowds, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. . . And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

It was his vision of a better future and his conviction that equal freedom would one day be enjoyed by all Americans that enabled King to have hope when death-threats against him seemed to imperil not only his life but the entire civil rights movement. After King’s death, his experience of the mountaintop inspired his followers to continue his work, just as Jesus’ disciples looked to the mountain top experience of Jesus’ transfiguration and were strengthened to further his mission.

Following upon: (1) Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah (8:29); (2) the first prediction that the Son of Man would suffer, be rejected, killed and rise after three days (8:31); and (3) Peter’s rejection of the prediction, the transformation of Jesus in glory, established his true identity as the beloved Son of God to whom all should listen (v. 7) and indicated that Jesus’ messianic mandate would be fully realized only at his death (v. 9).

The special revelatory character of this event, (whether it was truly a glimpse of the future glory of the risen Jesus offered as a source of hope during the ministry, or a post-resurrection experience anachronized back into the earthly mission of Jesus) is told through various literary and geographical clues.

High mountains were traditional sites for theophanies or godly manifestations; clouds which overshadowed were signs of the divine presence. Kat’idian, which is Greek for “off by themselves” (v. 2), was a favorite Marcan method of signalling a special revelation (see also 4:34; 6:31-32; 7:33; 9:2; 28; 13:3). The dazzling white garments (v. 3) pointed to the eschatological quality of the scene (Daniel 7:9, Matthew 28:3) as did the presence of Elijah and Moses. Elijah was believed to be the precursor of the Messiah; his presence during the experience of the transfiguration was tantamount to an announcement that the messianic era had dawned.

An additional clue to the salvific significance of the transfiguration can be found in Peter’s enthusiastic offer to build three booths (v. 5). Scholars believe this to be a reference to the annual feast of Sukkoth (Tabernacles, Booths, Tents) which was a joyful thanksgiving festival celebrating the harvest of grapes and grains (Exodus 23:16; 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:13-15).

Participants lived in booths or tents for the duration of the eight-day feast in remembrance of God’s protection of Israel in the wilderness. Gradually, the yearly Tabernacles commemoration was associated with the coming of the messiah whom it was believed would make an appearance during the feast (Zechariah 14:16-19).

If all of these clues were insufficiently clear, the fact that only Jesus was left after Elijah and Moses (representatives of the prophets and the law) disappeared, combined with the instruction of the heavenly voice (“listen to him”), to proclaim: the era of salvation has come; the law and prophets are fulfilled; look at Jesus, listen to him and be similarly transformed.

As Thierry Maertens and Jean Frisque have suggested, the transfiguration is a lesson to the church that its presence in the secular structure is intended for the transformation of that structure. That transformation will only be wrought at the price of renunciation of comfort and security. So it is that the church knows the ups and downs of glory and humiliation; so it is that the church witnesses to Jesus who was crushed by death so that sinners could share in the glory of his transfiguration.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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