Father Hanly’s homily for 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B, is about human sacrifice, and after looking at today’s reading about Abraham and Isaac, he tells a story from Taiwan.
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
Today, as you know, is the Second Sunday of Lent and, as we move towards Holy Week and the Triduum and Easter, we have these lovely readings along the way from the Old Testament and from the New Testament.
And it’s all about high mountains and fathers and sons.
The first reading is perhaps the most attractive and the one we know best of all. And it is, of course, from the book of Genesis and it deals with Abraham, Abraham who is our father. In fact, we call him Father Abraham for it was he that God chose on which to build His kingdom.
And God’s request came to him this day and He asked poor Abraham, if he loved Him, to sacrifice his son.
And, of course, in the Gospel we have Jesus transfigured on the mountain top, in the mountain number two.
And, finally, we have Jesus on the Mount of Calvary, the final and most important of the mountains.
And yet we’re drawn back to poor Abraham and what God is asking from him.
God is our Father of faith. He is the one who is the Father of the Jewish people, the Jewish nation, out of which comes eventually the Messiah, Jesus. We are the followers of the Messiah.
And Abraham, as you know from the story, treasured one thing above all other things: that in his old age he was promised a son and he was given a son. Little Isaac was his name and he treasured him. He treasured him because he knew that the hope that he held for the future of his family and the generations that would come after him, he had hope that Isaac would carry it on his little shoulders into the next generation. And then Abraham, who was seventy-five years old when he had this little boy, knew that he was the last hope that his progeny would continue.
And, suddenly, within him, he felt that God was calling him to do something that was really horrific and outrageous.
God was saying, “Abraham, take this son whom you love, bring him up to the high mountain of Moriah and on that mountain offer him as a holocaust.”
Abraham could not understand it. He must have raged in his heart. He was bewildered and it must have been with incredible pain that he began his journey up the mountain.
And it was there he stopped at the foot of the mountain and told everyone else to depart. And he and little Isaac gathered wood and he put the wood upon Isaac’s shoulders, so the little boy carried the wood up the mountain and they began to climb.
And when they climbed up to the top, the little boy turned to Abraham and he said, “Father, where is the ram for this offering?”
And the father said, looking into him, “God will provide.”
And so they go to the top of the mountain and the father prepared there an altar and he laid the wood on the altar. And then he placed his son on top of the wood, and he took a great knife and raised it up.
And, at the moment that he was about to strike his son, a voice came and said, “Abraham, 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 in awe and honour me. And for this reason, if you look up at the stars now in the sky and you look at the sand on the seashore, I promise you your descendants will be more numerous than either and, someday, someday, the whole world, all the nations of the world, will bless themselves in your name, because you have not withheld your only son.”
We as Christians cannot begin to understand what it means to be a follower of God.
What Abraham learned on the mountain, and this was the lesson that he learned and he learned it in a terrible way, but he learned it not for himself but for all the people, because the people that dwelt in the land that Abraham lived considered sacrificing human beings was the greatest gift that you could give to God.
And God wanted His people to know that no matter what, no matter what came, no matter who asked, no matter who prayed, no matter who even thought that human sacrifice was a way of worshipping God, would know that the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of the people who follow even to this very day, that to kill is not acceptable to God under any circumstances.
And that God was a God of life, and God was a God who nurtured life, and God is a God who loved His people. And because God loves, His love is everlasting, He knew that His people would never raise a sword in anger to kill another disciple, another friend, another person.
When I was in Taiwan, the children of Taiwan many years ago, the children of Taiwan told me this story and it was a popular story among them and I was fascinated by it.
The story was that in Taiwan many, many, many years ago, when Taiwan was a part of China and the people from Taiwan were the people really from the coastline of China who came over and settled themselves in the area that was good for rice growing.
And the governor of the island was a very good and gracious man. He treated the aborigines — who really were the first ones there and they lived up in the mountains, they were quite poor and needy in many ways, but a proud people — he knew that the aborigines needed special care, special concern and even special love.
And so he spent a lot of time up there with the aborigines and helping them to find ways other than the old ways they had, because one of the things they were, were head hunters. And they used to worship their god by sacrificing somebody that was maybe important or not important but was willing to lay his life down for the belief that the gods demanded human sacrifice because it was the most perfect sacrifice of all.
And the poor governor sat the king of the aborigines down and they had great talk. And the king said, “Even if I agree with you, I have to do this because it’s the custom and if we don’t do this custom the crops will fail and people will get sick and we will be marked as having offended the gods that have taken care of us.”
And the poor governor, he didn’t know what to do.
Then, finally, he went down, and then he came back up on a day and he called the leaders to him and he said, “You are right and I am right. You must offer sacrifice, the greatest sacrifice to the god you believe in.
“But I am telling you this: I am going to find for you, throughout all of my country, I am going to find for you the finest and the best warrior and the best person that could possibly represent you.
“And I am going to send him up to you. And he will be on a white horse and he will have a golden helmet on his head. And he will come through the break in the mountains. And he will come on New Year’s, the day of the beginning of a new year.
“And I give you permission that you can take him and cut off his head and offer this great sacrifice for your people, a sacrifice so great, but I am also telling you it will be the last time that you will ever need such a noble person to be sacrificed.”
And so New Year’s came and as the sun came up on the New Year, the aborigines ran out to the break in the mountains and, sure enough, a man on a white horse with a golden helmet came riding over.
And they attacked him and they cut his head off and they took the helmet off and they found it was their governor, the one that they loved most of all.
And from that time on, his praises were sung in all the aborigine villages. And it was true. It ended all of their need for a greater and finer sacrifice. And they gave up head hunting and they became farmers.
The little kids would smile and they used to look up at me and say, “You like that story?”
And I’d say, “Wow, that’s the best story I ever heard.” And I promised whenever I go to Abraham, for someday I would meet Abraham, I will also tell the people who listened, of the sacrifice of Abraham and how God wouldn’t let him do that.
And at the same time, as it is mentioned in the Gospel not long after His Son would take the place of the sacrifice that would save the world.
And His Father gave His Son permission to lay his life down that we might understand that no one should ever suffer death at the hands of another human being.
And at the same time how deep is the love of a Father who gave us a sacrifice that we ourselves, each Sunday and all through our lives, hold as the dearest and closest symbol of the love of God for His people.