What does it mean to believe? Abraham is “our father in faith.” We read his story from the Book of Genesis at the Easter Vigil, where it appears as a key reading, and in odd years from Monday of the 12th week of the year to Thursday of the 13th week of the year.
First, faith is a gift by which God invites us to a life far beyond what we have now. “The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land I will show you.’” It’s not a land we discover, but a land God shows us. We must leave a land we know and enter a land unknown.
Faith’s a gift, but also a challenge. Genesis 22,1-19 begins: “God put Abraham to the test.” There would be no greater test for Abraham than to take his son, Isaac, “your only one, whom you love,” and go up a high mountain and “offer him up as a burnt offering.”
Intimations of the Passion of Jesus are here: “the high mountain… the only son, whom you love.” Approaching the mountain, Abraham takes “the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac’s shoulders.” “God will provide the sheep.” Abraham tells Isaac. He builds an altar and arranges the wood. “Next he ties up his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.” All suggesting the Passion of Jesus.
But when Abraham takes his knife, God stops him. “I know how devoted you are. You did not withhold from me your beloved son.” And God blesses him. “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as the stars of the sky and the sands of the sea.”
The Letter to the Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.’ He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead and he received Isaac back as a symbol.” (Hebrews 11,18-19)
“He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead.” He faces sadness and cruelty. He’s not a dumb executioner, immune to what he was to do, but “he reasoned,” he believed deep within that God was a God of life. Like Jesus, Abraham faced an absurd death like this, and he believed in a God of love and promise. Like Jesus, his answer was “Not my will, but yours be done.”
The commentator in the New American Bible describes Abraham’s test. “… after the successful completion of the test, he has only to buy a burial site for Sarah and find a wife for Isaac. The story is widely recognized as a literary masterpiece, depicting in a few lines God as the absolute Lord, inscrutable yet ultimately gracious, and Abraham, acting in moral grandeur as the great ancestor of Israel. Abraham speaks simply, with none of the wordy evasions of chapters 12 and 21. The style is laconic; motivations and thoughts are not explained, and the reader cannot but wonder at the scene.
We ask for Abraham’s faith.
Abraham’s sacrifice is portrayed frequently in the Christian catacombs of Rome, where believers also faced the mystery of death. (above)
A medieval book for artists, “Speculum humanae salvationis,” the prime resource medieval artists used for comparing New Testament stories with the Old Testament, pairs the story of Abraham bringing Isaac to be sacrificed with the story of Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary, as shown in the example below: