Have you ever listened to Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony”? In the last movement, the full drama of the human condition is made present through the medium of sound.
Dark chords give way to euphoric resolutions. Dynamics move back and forth from the near silence of violins to the orchestra’s full voice. Listening to Mozart, one discovers that there is both gravity and grace to the human condition. And in the end, grace will play on.
The pairing of the binding of Isaac with the Gospel of the Transfiguration functions as a Scriptural symphony. We must take seriously the drama of Isaac’s binding. God has promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven if he keeps the covenant.
This promise, if not given by God, would be foolhardy. Sarah was well past the age of childbearing. Isaac, coming late in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, is a divine miracle. He’s Abraham and Sarah’s last chance. And now God asks Abraham to sacrifice “your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love” (Gn 22:2). God’s modifiers strike Abraham to the heart. Dear Isaac, the only beloved son of Abraham, is to be the ultimate sacrifice.
Various interpreters have found a way to deal with this problematic text, which seems to hold up divine violence. Historical-critical exegetes have suggested that this text in Genesis is the residue of an earlier occasion in Israel’s history, when child sacrifice was performed to God. This text now serves as a correction to Israel’s hardened heart, which saw child sacrifice as a good. After all, God intervenes.
Patristic interpreters have noted that Isaac must have been around 12 years of age. He was aware of what is taking place. Thus, Abraham does not offer Isaac to God. Isaac offers himself to God. Yet, let us attend to one other interpretation. God has given everything to Abraham including his beloved son. In giving up Isaac, a sign of the covenant, Abraham shows the completeness of his offering unto God. He will give up everything, including descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, to be in relationship with God.
All is gift.
In the Gospel, Jesus completes the story of Abraham and Isaac. Jesus is the one who best exemplifies the totality of sacrifice. He has given his entire being, his whole self to the Father in love.
And now, for a moment, we see the beloved Son for who he is on the hilly landscape of Mount Tabor. His flesh is transfigured, a sign of the glorious Resurrection that is to come. Peter, James and John witness the possibility that grace will play on. Even as Jesus, the Messiah, will reign not upon a throne but upon the wood of the cross, grace will play on.
The Christian life is lived between the mount of Moriah and the hill of Tabor. The Resurrection has not erased all the effects of death and suffering. Complete self-gift comes with a cost.
It is precisely in the midst of this drama of death and suffering that the melodious chords of the Resurrection ring out.
The season of Lent is an occasion for us to attune ourselves once more to the symphony of divine love. This is not a Pollyannaish symphony that ignores the darkness. Rather, we Christians dare to listen to the darkness, to the binding of Isaac, to the sorrow of Christ, and hear the first chords of redemption.
For the most beloved of all sons has defeated the darkness. We live in hope that the minor chords of our lives will give way to a glorious resolution.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church life.