HOMILY, Second Sunday of Lent: March 1, 2015
Fr. Charlie Fox, Spiritual Director, St. Paul Street Evangelization (www.streetevangelization.com)

The meaning of sacrifice

Today’s readings give us the stories of two fathers and two sons. Both fathers love their sons dearly, yet show they are willing to sacrifice them.

Both today’s First Reading and Gospel also point to the future, a blessed future that comes after and as a result of the time of sacrifice. After the angel held Abraham back from killing Isaac, the Lord promised him a great reward for his faith:

“I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants hall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing—all this because you obeyed my command.”

In the Gospel, we stand with Peter, James, and John on Mt. Tabor and witness the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Transfiguration is a kind of “sneak preview” of Jesus’ resurrection and glory. This moment is meant to strengthen the disciples as they prepare for the trauma of Jesus’ Passion and death. This is also one of those moments in the Gospel when Jesus’ divine identity becomes clearer:

“And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus…Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’”

Today’s Second Reading looks to the recent past in order to understand our present security and our future blessings. Saint Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans about 20-25 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. St. Paul tells us that Jesus’ death and resurrection are proof of the Father’s love for us. I was at a seminary in Ohio last weekend that had incorporated into its coat of arms St. Paul’s great rhetorical question from the beginning of today’s Second Reading: “If God is for us, who can be against us” (On the coat of arms it was written in Latin: “Si Deus pro nobis quis contra nos”)? It’s a good motto for a seminary, and it’s a good motto for us to take to heart.

When we read the Bible, it can be easy for us to move quickly from what we’ve just read to a moral for our own lives. Drawing moral lessons from Scripture is critically important, of course, but we need to be careful about first appreciating what we’ve read on its own terms.

The mothers and fathers here, especially, but also all of us, to some degree, understand how deeply parents love their children. The sacrifice of a child is unthinkable by any natural calculation. That is why, before drawing any moral lessons about, say, what we are called to sacrifice in our living of the Christian life, first we ought to stand in awe of a man with such great faith that he would sacrifice his beloved son. And above all we should stand in awe of our heavenly Father, Who “did not spare his own Son” but sacrificed Him for our salvation. Such a sacrifice is unthinkable, I said, by any natural calculation, but Abraham’s faith and the love of God are supernatural realities.

At Baptism, God poured the gift of supernatural faith into your hearts and minds. And God loves you, each of you, with a love that burns more intensely than we can begin to comprehend, except when we look to the Cross of Jesus. This love, too, God has poured into your hearts at Baptism. He calls you to love as He loves, not with the love of natural affection or attraction only, but with divine, self-sacrificing love. And there is a third gift God pours into you as the waters of Baptism are poured over you: the gift of supernatural hope. This hope is a certainty about the future God has promised you, a conviction that if God is for you, you don’t need to worry about who might be against you.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi, “Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live in the present as well.” When we stand in awe of the faith of Abraham and all the saints, when we stand in awe of God’s love for us and the sacrifice of Jesus, when we realize and appreciate the gifts God has given to each of us and the destiny He has promised us, then we are ready to consider the sacrifices we are called to make for God and for each other. Our sacrifices are not a way of earning God’s love or salvation; they can’t be earned! Our sacrifices are a response to God’s love and His call to spend our lives pursuing heaven. Our sacrifices are a way of imitating Jesus, Who sacrificed everything to give us everything.

That is the meaning of our Lenten sacrifices. Giving up chocolate or television, saying extra prayers, and donating more to charity is not just a cute relic from our childhood. Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is a response to God, your way to show that you take God and His promises seriously. Even when we fail, Lent is a time to show God that we’re seriously sorry for not taking Him seriously enough.

Sometimes, we can get kind of whiney about what we’re giving up for Lent (I know I can), or about any number of other sacrifices God calls us to make. Whenever you’re tempted to complain or to run away, think about Abraham just as he’s about to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The point isn’t about whether it’s is a “nice” story or not. The point is that God, Who has given us everything, is worthy of every sacrifice. That is the truth, and the Bible tells us the truth in an unvarnished way. Abraham understood this truth. The saints understand this truth. A saint is someone willing to do anything to please God, willing to sacrifice anything to obey His will.

We can be like the saints, and we need to be like them. Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). And He not only calls us to follow Him on the Way of the Cross, but He also empowers us to walk with Him. The Eucharist we celebrate today is the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus made available to us, helping us to live now as He lived on earth, so that we might one day go to heaven, where He lives now and forever.

[Pictured: Abraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1634]