Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP,
25 Feb 2018

St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

A man takes his son under false pretences out into the bush. Ties him up. Puts him on a makeshift altar. And takes a knife to his throat (Gen 22:1-18). It's an appalling story. Could God really want this? How could a man who was willing to do such a thing be celebrated as "our father in faith"?

Well, one traditional reading has been: God was only testing Abraham's obedience; He was never going to let it happen. But it remains that God tempted Abraham to try and Abraham did try to kill an innocent boy, his own son. Well, said some, God is the author of life and He makes the rules; our job is to obey. But that makes God into a capricious and bloodthirsty dictator that we could obey but never love.

So the Rabbis were troubled by this story, as we are. Some thought Abraham knew God would intervene and so was only going through the motions. Others imagined Isaac had volunteered to be the sacrifice. Some convinced Abraham misheard or misunderstood God, let his imagination and anxieties get the better of him. Others suggested that rather than God testing Abraham, Abraham was testing God. And still others thought this was God punishing Abraham rather than testing him.

One of the greatest Jewish thinkers, Moses Maimonides,1 said rationality would have counselled Abraham against doing such a thing, even if faith seemed to favour it. But since both faith and reason must be respected, Maimonides rightly insisted, we must all try to reconcile them where they seem to conflict, never abandoning one in favour of the other. The Christian Letter to the Hebrews interpreted the story as a test of faith rather than obedience: what was at issue was whether Abraham really believed God's promises that a nation would descend from his loins through this boy and believed that God had the power to save from death? (Heb 11:17-19) If there are a thousand people in our cathedral today, perhaps there are a thousand interpretations…

Our Gospel passage (Mk 9:2-10) casts light on all this. It's another Father and Son story, this time the divine Father and His transfigured Son. Again, it's up a mountain. Again, there's a heavenly voice. It's a premonition of the crucifixion, of course, Jesus' real 'hour of glory' and there are parallels with that hill-top story too. The wood upon which Abraham lays Isaac twins with the wood upon which Jesus is hanged. Isaac is made carry that wood, Jesus was also. And both young men are bound. In the first story a ram appears to take the place of the boy; in the other, the young man is Himself 'the Lamb of God'.

Indeed, it is only through the Story of Easter that we can make sense of the story of Abraham and Isaac. The faith of the patriarchs and apostles, every disciple including each of us, is tested in Holy Week, especially our confidence that God will intervene when we need it most, if not always in the ways we'd expect. Our faith and reason are stretched, and finally reconciled, in the atonement, as the only just sacrifice would be one of us, but the only sufficient sacrifice would be God Himself. However reluctant was Isaac, Jesus goes voluntarily to the cross, taking the sins of Abraham, Isaac and all their descendants - that is, us - upon his own shoulders and making right what we had made wrong. And he will not allow any other human being to pay this price. In a world in which child-sacrifice was commonplace, Abraham was taught there must be no more, indeed that Jews and Christians must be the most 'pro-life' of peoples; but Jesus took us further, so even animals would no longer be surrendered. His Eucharist at Calvary would be all-sufficient. And so the Father is revealed as no bloodthirsty dictator, no monster created of our own anxieties, but Someone more reasonable, more faithful, more just and more merciful, than our faith could ever have imagined or our reason have credited…

Some of you might have seen the recent TV series, The Shannara Chronicles. It's a post-nuclear-holocaust tale of some young friends who must fight against a rising evil. In last year's season our hero Will found the magical Sword failed him and shattered, because he was unable to let go of the things he loved. But in a vision of his father, who had faced the same choice, Will is told he must be prepared to lose everything he holds dear if he is to take the right path. As Will comes to accept this wisdom and his own fate, the Sword of Shannara is resurrected.

Our readings today likewise teach us the price of love. As our epistle proclaims, "God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all" (Rom 8:31-34). The "I would do anything for you" side of love means not being willing to give up everything, even oneself. When a. child suggests giving up green vegetables for Lent we patiently explain that a 'penance' must be a gift of self, a sacrifice, a letting go of something that really matters to us. And the Transfiguration makes it absolutely clear what God is giving up this Lent. Not just a young man, even a son, as Abraham was moved to do. No, the 'Beloved Son' He renders into our hands is "Light from Light, True God from True God". God is not offering someone else: He gives His all, His own substance, the One who is "Consubstantial with the Father".

Finally, the Transfiguration underlines what all that is for: the glorification of Christ is not entertainment or bragging; it is a promise that the God who saved Isaac from death would raise Jesus also and to glory. More than this, it is a promise to us of resurrection and glorification with Him.2 In the meantime we must listen to the Beloved Son. Like Will in the Shannara Chronicles, we must renounce whatever distracts us and hand ourselves over fully to God's will. And that, of course, is the message of Lent.

My sons, candidates for being made acolytes: Isaac was Abraham's son but also his acolyte or faithful attendant. Now, I do not plan to offer any of you as sacrifices today. But you do, in an important sense, offer yourselves. You ask to express your baptismal self-gift to Christ by assisting in the sacrifice of the Sacred Liturgy. You undertake to exercise pastoral care, especially as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. You, therefore, must be especially attentive to the Lord as were the three apostle-acolytes who accompanied Him to His Transfiguration and his Agony in the Garden. You must listen to Him, as the Father commands. So make God's holy word, enunciated in the Scriptures, lived by the saints and taught by the sacred magisterium of the Church, food for your soul and the guide for your life. And with St Paul today know that with God on your side, none can be against you!

St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

Welcome to St Mary's Cathedral for the Solemn Mass of the Second Sunday of Lent. Today I also have the pleasure of instituting a number of candidates from the parishes of Sydney to the Ministry of Acolyte, whom I welcome with their family members, friends and fellow parishioners. To everyone present, including visitors and more regulars, a very warm welcome!

1 Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed.

2 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae¸3, 45, 4 ad 2