Homily: “On the Binding of Isaac”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on The Second Sunday in Lent, 2018.

Even though the Sundays during the season of Lent are not part of the season properly understood, which means that we are given refreshment from any fasting or particular ascetical disciplines we might be following—these Sundays are in Lent, but not of Lent—nonetheless these Sundays certainly take on a Lenten character. This happens through the various displays of the liturgical color of purple, the color of expectancy, the suppression of liturgical proclamations of the Gloria and Alleluia, as well as the prayers and appointed lections from the Sacred Scriptures.

Yet the Eucharist takes us out of time, up on the holy mountain, alongside Saints Peter, James and John as they, and as we, witness Jesus transfigured, the Eucharist glistening with a love intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach further; on the mountain with Moses and Elijah on the right and on the left of Jesus, because the divinity of Jesus cannot be seen without the lenses of the Law and the Prophets, without the Old Testament.

And in being so close to Jesus brighter than the sun, our own shadows are made all the more evident. So that while our intimacy with Jesus transfigured means we are truly able to taste and see that the Lord is good, our shadows once diffuse and scattered become crisp and defined. So the season of Lent has this dual character—thrown into holy fear by the boundless Light of Christ fully revealed through prayer, and thrown into self-awareness of our frailty, to be sure, yet also ways we have sinned against God and our neighbor, in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone—that which has separated ourselves from God, because sin means separation: not of God moving away from us, but by our choices, we moving from Him.

Baptism, then, is the fundamental meaning of Lent, because by baptism we are made members of God, incorporated into Christ’s Body, separation removed. Through baptism we are a new creation in Christ. We are given to God, and He in His grace gives us back to ourselves transformed as an instrument for the spread of His love to all the ends of the earth. This is what happened to Noah and his family. Just as all the corrupted flesh was shallowed up in the flood, all which is sinful in us is removed in baptism. And just as God expressed His covenant of love with all people through the rainbow, we can always feel assured that despite what sins we commit after our baptism, God’s love for us endures: and so repentance is joyful because we are turning and returning to a loving Father. And so Saint Peter, blessed may he be, is quite right, that before anything else, the account of the Flood is understood within the context of baptism.

Our Old Testament account of the binding of Isaac by Abraham also expresses a dimension of Baptism, and so it is fitting to reflect on its meaning during Lent. Now, although Saint Paul in the passage we read from Romans chapter 8 provides a lens upon which to interpret the binding of Isaac, for indeed nothing we endure or suffer will separate us from the love of Christ—nothing inward and nothing outward—because human beings are not powerful enough to completely sever our relationship with the maker of all things, seen and unseen—I think the better passage from Romans to interpret the implications of the binding of Isaac upon baptism is found two chapters earlier, in chapter six. In a glorious yet hard passage, Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” The cross leads to resurrection, and before we are baptized into His Body, we die to our sinful flesh, die to all that has separated us from Him. So we reflect today on the role of sacrifice within the baptismal life we lead.

Knowing something about the Jewish context of the binding of Isaac brings this out more clearly. Certainly one of the most reflected upon biblical stories in the rich and varied world of Jewish liturgy and biblical commentary written and preached, Jesus, fully immersed in, and practicing, Jewish religion, would have been well aware of the common view that Isaac was no young, pre-teen boy dragged by his deranged father Abraham to be burned as some kind of child abuse and criminal act. Quite the contrary, within mainstream Jewish religion, Isaac was not a young boy but mature man somewhere in his 20s or 30s. One famous commentary sees Isaac as 37 years old. This makes for a dramatically different interpretation.

Furthermore, Isaac was not only aware of what was happening from the beginning, but initiates the sacrifice through his own prayer, prior to all of this. God hears this prayer, and only then goes to Abraham and instructs him to take his son, his only son Isaac to the holy mountain to be offered as a sacrifice. Isaac endures humiliation, to be sure, yet he chooses to take this humiliation upon himself, exercising his free will, knowing his role within salvation history as the son of Abraham, father of many nations, with descendants greater in number than the stars. Isaac is humiliated, yet by the mysterious grace of God, he is exulted, because the Lord will provide. Just as with Noah and his family, who gave themselves to God’s will completely as sacrifice and endured serious tribulation, Isaac gave himself over to God’s will, who in His unfathomable grace and love, gave his life back to Isaac. The beloved son, chosen by God for humiliation as well as exaltation; the son consciously and willing accepting the humiliation and death (or near-death) because it is the will of the father, indeed a sacrifice that atones for the sins of others.

Jesus, then, makes full use of the complexity of this theology in the mainstream of Jewish thought of His day when He teaches that the Son of man, indeed the beloved Son in Whom God is well pleased, must suffer and be killed. Jesus recapitulates in Himself the experience of Isaac. He is the messiah, the anointed one, not because of worldly power but because of trial, humiliation, a shameful and painful death for the sins of all people past, present and to come. Jesus trusts His Father.

Brothers and sisters, this Lent, let us be like Isaac. We choose to sacrifice ourselves for God, to be living sacrifices for Him, to give our lives over to Him, trusting Him and knowing that His grace will transform us. We know this for so many reasons, chiefly we know this through the Eucharist. Ordinary bread and wine is transformed, metamorphosed into the glistening love of Christ’s Body and Blood. Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice for us so that in being fed spiritual by His love we can become what we receive. He instituted the Eucharist for the forgiveness of our sins, and as we love God, being filled by Him as the waters filled the earth in the flood, as He is present also in our neighbors, their sins, their separation from Him, can be lessened, even removed by our loving words and deeds, the means of God’s grace in the world. We celebrate the Eucharist, we revere the Eucharist, because within each person who makes his or her First Holy Communion, the world is a better place—because through that new communicant, Jesus, the true vine, is more present in the world. In a world of darkness, each new communicant is a beacon of Christ’s light, Christ’s peace, and Christ’s hope for us.

The icon “The Sacrifice of Isaac” can be purchased here from Skete.com.