The first reading on Sunday came from the book of Genesis.
In the light of Christian revelation it points us to the self-sacrifice of Christ, Son of Mary and Son of God: a self-offering which win salvation for us.
God put Abraham to the test. ‘Abraham, Abraham’ he called. ‘Here I am’ he replied. ‘Take your son,’ God said ‘your only child Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a burnt offering, on a mountain I will point out to you.’
When they arrived at the place God had pointed out to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Then he bound his son Isaac and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven. ‘Abraham, Abraham’ he said. ‘I am here’ he replied. ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy’ the angel said. ‘Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your son, your only son.’ Then looking up, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt-offering in place of his son.
The angel of the Lord called Abraham a second time from heaven. ‘I swear by my own self – it is the Lord who speaks – because you have done this, because you have not refused me your son, your only son, I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants shall gain possession of the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, as a reward for your obedience.’
The passage has been inspiration many artists and writers. In this anniversary year of the second year of World War the following poem by Wilfred Owen deserves our attention.
The Parable of the Young Man and the Old.
Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
The savagery of that text reminds us of how for all its bleakness and moral challenge the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis, because of the love and goodness of God, does not, end with the sacrifice of the son.
And yet so many sons and daughters are sacrificed still to human greed and fear and hatred and prejudice.
Pray for peace, pray for reconciliation.
Photographs showing details from No Man’s Land by Charles Sargeant Jagger, 1919-20. Property of the Tate Gallery, photographed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. (c) Allen Morris, 2007.