Fr. Charles Irvin
Genesis 22:1-2,9,10-13,15-18;Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10
If you read letters to the editor in newspapers you will realize that many people have lost confidence in a loving God. Nowhere is this more forcefully indicated than in the debate over abortion and assisted suicide. Some have gone so far as to assert the Catholic Church wants people to suffer, that it’s a death dealing rather than a life giving institution, and that it extols human pain and suffering.
In the world of art this attitude is reflected in works of self-proclaimed “art” that, in just one instance, portray the crucifix, Christ nailed to the cross, immersed in a jar of human urine.
Certainly all those who support partial birth abortion and “mercy killing” , along with others who advocate the position that we can terminate the lives of they declare to have a “miserable quality life”, vociferously oppose traditional Judeo-Christian teachings which hold that God and God alone gives life… that God and God alone takes human life. This teaching is found in the Old Testament’s Book of Job as well as in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Job, you will remember, having endured suffering to excruciating levels, cries out “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
How we, both individually and as are society, are to deal with suffering is a major problem we need to deal with. Today’s first reading from Sacred Scripture along with today’s Gospel account put our faces into it.
Abraham’s first wife, Sarai, childless and in her 70’s, was in a jealous rage because her husband Abraham had a child by her maidservant Hagar. Hagar had given birth to Ishmael; the boy-child was a source of great joy to Abraham, who at age 86 had been able to sire a child.
Thirteen years later God offers His famous covenant to Abraham, now in his 90’s, and causes his wife, now called Sarah, to become fruitful. She, too, bears a boy-child and names him Isaac.
At the time of Isaac’s weaning Sarah demands that Abraham cast away Hagar and her child Ishmael by sending them out into the desert with a little bread and water, and to leave them there to die. Abraham relying on God’s loving care and providence sends his beloved son Ishmael out into the death-dealing desert. Most likely he thought Ishmael would die. It’s hard to imagine the levels of human suffering that were swirling around these people.
Years later, when Isaac grows to about the same age as Ishmael, Abraham is asked again, this time by God Himself, to dispatch his beloved son by plunging a knife into his heart. There are no promises given by God, no indications whatsoever, that there will be any divine protection given to Isaac. All Abraham has left, the only thing upon which he can rely, is God’s goodness and love. Abraham acts on pure faith alone.
And that’s the whole point, as well as that of the Gospel account. The spectacular scene just read takes place up on top of Mt. Tabor immediately prior to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, there to be sacrificed on the altar of the Cross. The very same Peter, James and John present for this moment of ecstasy on Mt. Tabor are likewise present on the Mount of Olives for Christ’s agony. The divinity within Christ revealed here will be just as present as the humanity within Jesus as he suffers on the other mount. Both reveal the whole truth about Jesus Christ, namely that he is truly both man and God, divinity and humanity, true God and true man. Peter, James and John are very much animated, very much alive to the moment of privilege on the Mount of Transfiguration. They will, however, sleep in the Garden of Gethsemani up on Mt. Olivet.
The Christian response to suffering is far too complicated to explain in a letter to the editor to the newspaper. And even though a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine is promoted in certain quarters as “art” deserving to be supported by public tax dollars, we nevertheless elevate the crucifix, the cross with Christ’s human body on it, high above our altars because of what it reveals about our human nature.
It is worthwhile in the current public debate over human suffering and the question of who controls the birth of human life as well as who controls its death to remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., built his entire civil rights movement on the theological notion of the effectiveness and power of human suffering. He knew full well its power to reveal the divine within our human nature; its power to change our consciousness of what it means to be a child of God, a human being created in the image and likeness of God. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew full well that it could stir the soul of an entire nation and change the direction of our entire American culture by changing our consciousness and therefore our consciences through passive, non-violent suffering.
Here in the middle of Lent, Holy Mother Church puts these two powerful readings from the bible in front of our eyes. She doesn’t glorify human suffering, nor does she rejoice that humans must suffer. Contrary to the propaganda of secularists, the Roman Catholic Church has devoted hundreds of billions of dollars to the alleviation of human suffering, the care of the sick and suffering, as well as the elderly. Likewise, she has devoted enormous resources to educating countless millions of people in order that they may be delivered from ignorance and given light for their minds with which to see reality and discern wisdom. Our Church needs no defense against her enemies; she stands with Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ in the certain faith that God will not let the gates of hell prevail against her.
What then shall we say this day of our own personal faith at this stage in our journey through Lent? Can we really “let go and let God”? Shall we let go of those things that we cling to, let them go in the sure and certain faith that God will bring good out of evil, life out of death, meaning out of absurdity, and joy out of suffering? Abraham is, as we pray in the Roman Canon, “our father in faith”. If Abraham could let his beloved son go, whom God spared from death, and if God our Father in heaven could let His own beloved Son go, whom He did not spare from death, what levels of faith do we have with which to do the same? Just how much do we allow God to be truly God in our own lives by placing our lives in His hands?