After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
God’s “testing” of Abraham is on one hand a very deliberate foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus (the innocent son carrying the wood for his own sacrifice up the mountain in repayment of the sins of another), but on another hand it seems like one of the most cruel passages in all of scripture: why would God ask a parent to give up their child? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
I’ve been a parent for a little more than 8 years now. While I’m not a perfect parent, I’m learning that there is no limit to what I’d sacrifice for my little people: sleep, space in my bed (when someone has a nightmare), having a neatly organized house… and if they were in danger, I’d stand in front of a bus or worse for them in a heartbeat. This makes the above passage so disturbing. Abraham waited and waited for Isaac – a son who fulfilled God’s promises – to be born. For God to tell him to not only watch his son die but to be the very instrument of his death, it’s unfathomable to me. It makes no sense.
There is something that is dramatically out of order with a parent burying their child. I’ve had the sad privilege of attending several such funerals, and each time I come out of it thinking to myself: “This is wrong. This is all wrong. Things aren’t supposed to work this way.” We parents rejoice in the successes of our children, we weep with them in their heartbreaks, and we learn with them from their mistakes (and our mistakes as well.) As we grow old, we are meant to watch them grow up… so when that order is reversed by a tragedy, an illness, or a human act, we are rightly scandalized by it.
We live in a world of deep, deep darkness… a world where we hear daily about a multitude of tragedies: hostage takings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, illnesses – a world where life often makes little to no sense. When one of these tragedies jumps off the newspaper page and into our own lives, as it did for Abraham in Genesis 22 – I don’t think we can be blamed for looking up to God and saying, “pardon?” Genesis 22 doesn’t record much of Abraham’s reaction to this request… in fact, beyond his comments to Isaac that “God will provide” for the sacrifice, his words aren’t recorded at all. So we are left to imagine what he must have been thinking: the horror that must have run through his mind when God first spoke, and how each step towards the mountain must have gotten heavier and heavier… and then, what relief it was when God intervened.
One of the most disturbing events I can recall is the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary – where the victims were six and seven years old. On that day, my friend, the late Fr. Mike Mireau wrote:
“We might be wondering how they can have Christmas now, but the truth is, tragedies like these are the reason there is a Christmas.” -Fr. Michael Mireau
During Advent, we reflect on why Jesus came: to crush the power of evil and free us from sin, to show us God’s love, to give an example of how to live, and to make us sharers in His divine nature. I think in those darkest moments – moments we all unfortunately experience in this world – our ultimate conclusion that ‘it isn’t right’ is bang on. Everything about a child’s funeral seems wrong just as everything about saying farewell to a loved one who was taken by an illness seems wrong, just as any number of a thousand different tragic situations that we will face will seem wrong. It is these moments that the one of the Church’s prayers of Advent may be the most profound words any of us can offer:
Come, Lord Jesus! The world in silence/darkness awaits You; come and ransom us from evil, come and make things right; come because apart from You, our world makes no sense at all. Come, Lord Jesus!
And we may find that, just as on that first Christmas night, He will come to us in peace and meekness; in a quiet, gentle, and unexpected way… and He will weep with us.