In this beautiful homily for 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B, Father Hanly takes a look at the scriptures on mountains and fathers and sons. Two readings, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament, lead us towards, and help us understand, the final story of mountains and fathers and sons -– that on the Mount of Calvary.
Readings for Mass
First Reading: Genesis 22:1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19
Second Reading: Romans 8:31-34
Gospel: Mark 9:2-10
Transcript of Homily
Today, in the Second Sunday of Lent, as we move towards Holy Week and the Triduum and Easter, we have these lovely readings from the Old Testament and from the New Testament. It’s all about mountains and fathers and sons. The first reading, from the book of Genesis, deals with Abraham and God’s request that he sacrifice his son. And, of course, in the gospel, we have Jesus transfigured on a mountain top, in mountain number two. And, finally, we have Jesus on the Mount of Calvary, the final and the most important, that both readings are leading towards, for us to understand. So let us go back to the first reading.
Abraham is our father, our father in faith. He is the one who is the father of the Jewish people, the Jewish nations, out of which comes the Messiah. And we are followers of the Messiah. And Abraham, as you know from the story, treasured one thing above all others: in his old age he was promised a son, and he was given a son, little Isaac, and he treasured him. He treasured him because he knew the hope that he held for the future of his family and generations after him. He had hoped that Isaac would carry it on his little shoulders into the next generation.
And then, suddenly, within him he felt that God was calling him to do something that was really horrible and outrageous. He was saying, “Abraham, take this son whom your love, and bring him up to the mountain of Moriah, and on the mountain offer him as a holocaust.”
Abraham could not understand it. He was bewildered. And it must have been with incredible pain that he began his journey towards Mount Moriah. And it was there he stopped at the foot of the mountain and left everyone behind, and he and little Isaac gathered wood and he put the wood on the back of the little boy and they began the climb. When they climbed to the top, the little boy turned to Abraham and he said, “Father, where is the lamb for the offering?” and the father said, “God will provide.”
And they got to the top of the mountain, and the father prepared an altar and he laid the wood on the altar and then he placed his son on the altar. And he took a great knife and raised it up, and, at that moment, a voice came and said, “Abraham, do not touch the child”. And then God said to him, “Abraham, because you have done this, you have not withheld your only child, I know how much you love me. I know how much you are at awe and honour me. And, for this reason, if you look at the stars in the sky, and the sand on the sea, your descendants will be more numerous than either and, some day, the whole world, all the nations of the world, will bless themselves in your name, because you have not withheld your only son.”
We cannot, as Christians, help but realize that this is the beginning of what it means to be a follower of God. What Abraham learnt on the mountain, the first thing he learnt, of course, was that the people should never, never, never even consider what all the tribes around them were doing: human offerings, because they respected their gods and were afraid of them, so they offered up children, sometimes adults, and this was their great act of worship. And what this story was telling, as the Jewish teachers taught consistently from this moment on, that every life is sacred, that no life should be taken, even for the sake of worshipping God, and especially for the sake of worshipping God. We live in a time, when many nations and tribes give rise to people who say, “I am doing these things in God’s name,” and destroying children and people and families, and looking maybe to Heaven’s blessings for it. Not the Jews, not the children of Israel, because they remembered Abraham, and how Abraham was actually willing, out of his own love for God, to offer his son, and God said, “All life is sacred. All life is sacred.”
There is an old saying about a solider in Vietnam. He was eighteen years old and after the first week in Vietnam, he was in a fire fight on a hilltop and he saw a soldier, an enemy soldier, coming up in the night, sneaking up, and he pulled out his rifle and he shot him. And he said himself twenty years later, “That day, with one bullet, I killed two men.” He who takes another’s life deliberately will live with that, and only the forgiveness of God will heal him.
That is the first mountain.
The second mountain begins in glory. Jesus, by now reaching the end of his ministry, is moving through Galilee, and from Galilee he will go down into Jerusalem. And there in Jerusalem, he, too, will be crucified. And it is a tradition that the mount on which Jesus was crucified, the Mount of Calvary, is the exact same mount that is the Mount Moriah, many, many centuries before, where Abraham offered his son.
Jesus, knowing that his time is short, brings his disciples up the mountain. And he’s going up to pray because, as you know by now, the mountain top is the place where you can touch God, and the mountain top is where you can see all your little troubles dissolve, because you can see for miles and miles around, how gigantic the world is and how small you are. And when Moses climbed Mount Sinai, he could look down at his people by the thousands, like someone had kicked over an ants’ nest, and scurrying here and there, and so tiny he wondered how in God’s name could God himself love this? What are we that God loves us? What are we that God will have us? Why is it that He would call us? Because God is vulnerable, and God needs our love. And he needs people like Moses, and he needs people like Abraham, and he needs people like ourselves to be the instruments of bringing that love to the world.
And so God could see his son struggling up the mountain, knowing that his enemies were closing in about him, and he brought them to the mountain top, his three favourites, Peter, James and John. And there suddenly everything changed. A bright light shone and Jesus’ face became white as snow, and the disciples were thrown into a heaviness like a dream. And suddenly Moses and Elijah — Moses the Lawgiver, Moses the maker of the covenant on Sinai, and Elijah, who was to come, as they firmly believed, he was to come first, would be John the Baptist proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, And they were talking to Jesus about what? About his suffering, about his dying. And then as Peter cried out, “Lord, it is so good for us to be here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah,” because Peter yearned for a quiet mountain top to be with God, and he wanted to spend his life worshiping God. But God had other designs. And so a cloud came upon them. The cloud, of course, is the shekinah of God, the divine presence making himself manifest. And when the shekinah of God wrapped them around in a dark cloud, and the voice came out of the cloud and said this: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
And now here is another father appealing to the people that the son is gathering, appealing to them and letting them know that He has so loved the world that He has sent His most precious, most precious son and handed him over to them that they would listen and believe and learn to love. Because you see all these stories are love stories: Abraham for his son, God for his son.
And that they would listen and they would learn that there is nothing more important for them to learn than that the Son of God was a servant. He would go about healing and caring and bringing people together. He would always be giving, as God gave his son, so he himself would give himself totally to his ministry of healing and bringing peace to the world.
But there is one difference between Abraham and his son, and the Father and his son. We always stop. We never love completely enough. We always withhold. And Abraham was allowed to withhold his son. But when God gives, he is much more generous than we are, and he allows the unspeakable to take place. For Jesus agrees that he will lay his life down that we might be healed, that we might be saved, that we might begin to understand how great is God’s love: the Father who is the giver and the Son who offers Himself in a holocaust.
These stories have great meaning all down through the centuries. And this is one of the reasons that we have Lent. It is for us and hear this gospel during Lent, the time of preparing. Preparing for what? For the wonderful presence of Jesus at the Last Supper saying, “I have come to tell you how deeply you are loved, and you are now my friends, and tomorrow I will offer my life for you, and you will be healed, and you will be saved, and you will have new hope, because on the third day, the Father who loves me and loves you, out of my sacrifice, will bring a resurrection and new life, not just for me, but for the whole world. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that we who accept his love, that we who believe in his love, that we who believe in self sacrifice as God’s kind of love, will have eternal life.
I’d like to end this by reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah speaks to his people at a time when they are turning back to God. And the main act of coming back to God was fasting. Fasting here is understood in self sacrifice. And this is what he says, “God says, ‘The fast that I desire is the breaking of the chains of evil, the untying of the bonds of slavery. It is the freeing the oppressed among you. It is welcoming the poor into your homes. It is clothing the people who you find naked, and not despising your neighbour. If you do these things, then will your light shine like the dawn, and your wound be quickly healed over. Then, if you cry, God will answer, if you call, God will say, “I am here, I am with you.’” And the prophet adds, “Help us to fast, Oh Lord, by loving our brothers and sisters.”
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This homily was delivered on 8th March 2009.
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