Q. Why did God ask Abraham to kill Isaac?
A. When God reveals himself to Abraham, he lavishes the promise of many gifts upon him. In return, Abraham is invited to worship God. God does not impose himself, nor does he have any need to enter into this covenant for any reason other than love. And so, God lavishes his love upon Abraham and in return seeks his faithfulness in true freedom.
From the outset, however, it could be considered that Abraham’s intentions might not be the most sterling. Obviously, he only needed to say he worshipped God and would receive God’s abundance in return. It seems like an easy, and maybe even selfish, deal for him initially. But then God gives Abraham a defining challenge to prove his commitment to the bargain.
The episode where God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is not the story of a vengeful, twisted God. Rather, God is asking Abraham to worship him in thanksgiving and sacrifice. Abraham knew that the abundant blessings God bestowed upon him would be fulfilled through his promised son, Isaac. Later in the Bible, the prophet Samuel sums it up succinctly: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the LORD’s command? Obedience is better than sacrifice, to listen, better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15: 22).
In this story, Abraham’s true worship of God is put to the test, and his obedience and trust in God is thoroughly established. Abraham is unhesitant to give God his obedience, even if he might not understand what God is asking of him. Abraham serves as a model of what it means to live obedient lives of sacrifice and thanksgiving in worship of God. Abraham’s story shows that God’s plans often defy human logic and show a divine logic at work. Since God is love alone, we have every reason to trust that what he asks of us is in our best interest. As St. Paul says, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). Abraham’s story embodies this vision.
Q. Who is required to fast in the Church?
A. Fasting is required of adult Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59. The required days of fasting are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Abstinence, which is refraining from the consumption of meat, is obliged for Catholics 14 and older. Catholics are obliged to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, including Good Friday. Universal Church law requires abstinence on all Fridays of the year, but in the United States, Catholics may perform another penance if they choose.
Some exceptions apply in particular circumstances. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops indicates the following exceptions on its website: “Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.”
Q. Are cemeteries considered holy ground like churches, and if so, why?
A. As each human person is made in the image of God, we have a duty to care for the bodies of the deceased. For this reason, the Church requires burial — even in the cases of cremation.
Whenever and wherever possible, the Church owns cemeteries to ensure the proper burial of the deceased faithful. These Catholic cemeteries are properly blessed ground. Where that is not a possibility, however, then the individual grave is to be blessed at each burial.
Churches are set aside for divine worship and the celebration of the sacraments, and they are blessed and/or consecrated for that purpose by the local bishop. While cemeteries are made holy by their blessing, they not considered to be holy in a similar fashion to churches.
Q. Do people in hell live for eternity?
A. Each human person is endowed with an immortal soul from the moment of our conception. Our souls exist into eternity, and we are each particularly judged at the end of our life and assigned to hell or heaven, either immediately or after a period of purification.
Eternity in hell is the result of dying “in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love … remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice” (CCC, No. 1033). If assigned to hell, one is eternally separated from God as the result of his or her own free will. God doesn’t want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pt 3:9).
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @HeinleinMichael.