2nd Sunday of Lent (Fr. Francis)
Some years ago, a woman and man in my parish who had been married civilly many years before, asked that their marriage vows be validated and blessed by the church. To do this, the couple was required to prove that both of them had been baptized. Soon enough, the man’s baptismal record arrived from the church where he had been baptized as an infant. The woman, however, was having a hard time locating her baptismal record. She asked for the sacramental record at the church she attended as child and where she had always been told that she was baptized. However, they were unable to locate the record. She checked neighboring parishes. None of them were able to locate the record, either.
This caused the woman to fall into a depression. I assured her that family members who remembered the baptism could write a letter indicating that the baptism did, indeed occur. But she was not comforted. She remained distraught. She explained to me that her childhood had not been pleasant. Her parents continually fought. She herself suffered emotional abuse. She always felt that baptism was the one gift that her parents gave her and that it was the best they could give. Her baptism was always a reminder that despite their mistakes, her parents loved her very much and they wanted her to have the gift of faith in God, the best gift they had to give. The fact that there did not seem to be a record of that gift caused her deep distress.
Baptism reminds us that we are part of God’s new creation. Baptism is a visible sign that we have put on Christ and that we have become part of Christ’s mystical body. Baptism is an event that fills every life full of hope and promise as God’s new creation.
Through this new covenant of Baptism, we become God’s sons and daughters. We become part of Christ’s body. The grace that comes through baptism allows us to believe in God; to hope in God; and to love God. Baptism gives us the power to live and act under the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The grace that comes allows us to grow in goodness. In a word: we become a new creation through Baptism! Baptism is such an important event in our lives that many people remember the date of their baptism as they remember their birthday!
We do not have to do things perfectly from the time we are baptized to be part of God’s new creation. We make mistakes. We fail. We sin. But none of this causes God to break the covenant He has made with us. We are still His sons and daughters. We are still part of Christ’s mystical body. We still possess the grace to believe in God; to hope in God; and to love God, even after we have sinned. God never gives up on us.
The woman I spoke about a moment ago who could not locate her baptismal record did finally locate it. After she discovered her baptismal record, she told me that she saw the gift of faith that she had received from her parents, who loved her the best they could, made a difference. She was reminded that God never let go of her.
Baptism is an event that fills every life full of hope and promise as God’s new creation. Baptism reminds us that we are part of God’s new creation.
The Good News of these scriptures is that we are part of God’s new creation. The Good News is that God has made a promise and God is faithful. God always invites us to come close. He invites us to listen to him.
Today the scriptures plead with us to listen. Today the scriptures plead with us to hold our tongues, suspend our judgements, and listen. Today the scriptures plead with us to trust God and see the better choice.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is a story of Abraham listening to God. The scripture tells us that God was testing Abraham to see if Abraham loved and trusted God. God told Abraham to take his son, his only son Isaac, and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah. Abraham could have argued with God. Abraham might have said, “God you’ve got this wrong. After all, you told Sarah and I that our descendants would outnumber the number of the stars. We have only got this one son, God. You must be wrong about this!” Or Abraham could have said, “God, how DARE you ask me to do this awful thing!” Abraham could have argued. After all, didn’t Abraham argue with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah?
It is curious that Abraham did not say anything. He simply listened, and right away, took the boy Isaac to the place of sacrifice. There is more to this story. Maybe the story is not so much about God testing Abraham as it is about Abraham recognizing the better choice. Maybe the story is less about God testing Abraham and more about Abraham listening to God who is always pointing to the better choice. The scripture tells us that as Abraham raised the knife to sacrifice Isaac a voice from heaven said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy.” In fact, the voice from heaven called out Abraham’s name twice, “Abraham, Abraham!”
The scripture gives us the sense that Abraham was caught up in the work of sacrificing Isaac. The knife was raised, and Abraham was convinced that the Lord was asking him to sacrifice his only son. The voice from heaven needed to call out twice to shift Abraham’s perception away from his belief that God demanded such an awful sacrifice. Then Abraham came to his senses and understood that God would not ask him to sacrifice his son. The scripture says that “As Abraham looked about, he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So, he went and took the ram and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.”
Reflecting on this story, a Jewish midrash devoted to advice for respectful living identifies a list of special and miraculous things that were created by God on the last day of creation. On this list of special and miraculous things was the ram caught in the thicket. The midrash suggests that Abraham was so caught up in what he believed God was asking him to do that he missed seeing the ram in the thicket, which was destined by God at the time of creation to be the sacrifice in place of Isaac. According to the Jewish midrash, the ram was always there. Truly, Abraham recognized the better choice and that was the miracle.
During this season of lent, we make a special effort to listen . . . to listen and look up and see God working in our lives. We make a special effort to listen and to see God offering us a better choice for our lives. When we bite our tongue rather than mouth destructive gossip that might give us momentary pleasure, like Abraham we recognize the better choice. When the married couple finds a way to forgive one another rather than nursing a grudge, like Abraham they recognize the better choice. When the workaholic realizes time with family and friends is a treasure more valuable than overtime pay, like Abraham they recognize the better choice.
The scriptures urge us to listen to God to see the better choice. The scriptures urge us to listen and to look around to see God pointing to the better choice for our lives.
For us Christians, when we look up and see the better choice, it is always Christ, himself. Christ offers his human example and his divine assistance as the better choice. Christ is the better choice.
We are told in the gospel that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain. There he was transfigured before them so that his clothes became dazzling white and his skin shone like light and Moses and Elijah were seen conversing with him. Then, from out of the clouds a voice was heard which said, “Behold this is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Right after the voice from heaven said this, the apostles looked around and “they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.” It was clear, Jesus was the one of whom the voice from heaven was speaking. It was clear that Moses was not the Son of God. It was clear the Elijah was not the Son of God. It was Jesus, who was the better choice!
When we listen to the Word of God and look around, we see Christ in our midst. When we listen to the cries of the poor and allow those cries to shape our sensitivities and do what we can to help them, we see Christ who said, whatever you did “for the least . . . you did for me” (Mt 25:40). When we think of others before we think of ourselves, we listen to Christ who said, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Whenever we receive Communion or fall in worship before the tabernacle, we behold Christ who said, “Take and eat . . . this is my body” (Mt 26:26).
The Christian life is about listening and looking up to see the better choice, which is always Christ Himself.
Abraham always listened and was quick to trust God, even when it seemed to him that God was wrong. The Good News is that when we listen, we see Christ transfigured before us, even as did Peter, James, and John.
Fr. A. Francis HGN