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Posted by on Feb 25, 2024

Put to the Test by God

Put to the Test by God

The twelve-year-old boy rushed breathlessly into my classroom and came straight up to me with a question that had been on his mind for days. “He didn’t kill him, did he?” he demanded to know. He was the older son in a troubled family and had only consciously heard the first part of the story of God’s test of Abraham’s faith during Mass on the Sunday before our class. I’m sure the entire reading had been proclaimed, but he had not heard it. He had waited until we met on Thursday afternoon, worrying about this terrible command God had given to Abraham – to sacrifice his only son. How could this be? What kind of God would do such a thing? How could a good God require the killing of a child? He had been so shocked by the mere thought of God asking a man to kill his only son that he stopped hearing anything more right at that point. He had not heard the rest of the story at all and was deeply relieved when I assured him that in fact, God had not allowed any harm to come to Abraham’s child.

This story of the testing of Abraham (Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13,15-18) and many others like it are deeply troubling to us.  Why would anyone ever think that our God could or would demand the blood sacrifice of children? Why would Abraham have believed that about God?

One of the great challenges we humans face is to be able to conceive of a reality dramatically different from the one in which we live. How can we imagine a person who never loses his or her temper? How can it be possible always to be forgiven? Wouldn’t the fear of punishment be needed to force people to follow the rules? And how can anyone establish that fear without actually punishing someone severely and publicly for misbehavior?

When we listen to the readings from both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, it’s important that we realize we are looking back in time to a very different day and age. Additionally, we are looking from the perspective of a different culture, with different understandings of human behavior and the nature of God.

Abraham lived in a time in which all the people among whom he lived had their own local god or gods whom they believed guided and protected them. These gods were very much like the people who worshiped them: territorial, jealous, protective of those they considered to be their own, impatient, always demanding proof of the good will of others.

The gods of the peoples among whom Abraham and his family lived sometimes required the sacrifice of firstborn sons as proof of loyalty and obedience. They required families to prove their faith by sacrificing a child, typically a son because sons were seen as more valuable. It was rare for families not to have children, so this rule was not hard to enforce.

Abraham would have seen this practice and assumed that the God he first met back home in Mesopotamia would want the same kind of sacrifice from him. Blessedly for Abraham and all of us who follow in worshiping his God, this is not what God requires. Sometimes, we are asked to make tremendous sacrifices. Other times, what we are asked to sacrifice is not life-shaking or life-changing. Nevertheless, when we are asked to make a sacrifice, it is not something easy for us to do. If it were, it wouldn’t really be a sacrifice now, would it?

When Jesus was born, he was truly human and truly God. One hundred percent on both fronts! Not a demi-god – half human and half divine. Fully human. Fully divine. As a human, Jesus did not know everything. He learned like any child what was expected of him as a man. He lived like everyone else, not at all remarkable. Yet when he heard God’s voice at his baptism in the Jordan River, he knew all had changed in that moment. He began to understand how dramatically things had changed. The kingdom had come. His mission was to proclaim it to all who would listen.

Some people welcomed the news. Some were frightened by it. Some thought it too good to be true. Some worried that they would lose their positions of influence. Some probably worried that the Romans who ruled their country would again kill thousands of people for rebelling against the Empire. The notion that a prophet, anointed by God to preach the coming of God’s kingdom, would not be a threat to Roman power was unheard of. Of course they would see it as a threat! How could the threat be minimized?

Jesus needed to testify in Jerusalem to what had happened to him, to the leaders of his community, the priests and teachers at the temple. The kingdom of God was here now. It was essential for them to hear this good news. So he began his journey, teaching and healing as he went along. A group of people accompanied him. Some were with him for a long while and became close companions. Others came for a while and left when his words became frightening or impossible for them to believe.

One day, when he had become very aware of the danger of execution he would be facing in Jerusalem, he went up to a mountain top with three of his closest friends to pray. Mountain tops have often been places where God and humans have met. This day was the same. Jesus and his friends were visited by two historical figures: Moses who received the Law from God and Elijah the prophet who was carried away by a heavenly chariot at the end of his life. Jesus himself began to shine with an unearthly light, his clothes whiter than any bleach could make them. The disciples saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. Then they saw a cloud that came and cast a shadow over the mountain. God often appeared in a cloud and this was no exception. The voice that came from the cloud told them Jesus was his beloved son. They were to listen to him. (Mk 9:2-10)

Interestingly, God spoke similar words to Abraham about his son Isaac, referring to him as “your beloved son.” Abraham’s willingness to give all to God was rewarded with God’s returning of the son to him. An animal was offered in sacrifice instead of the child. (My young student was much relieved to hear that good news!)

When Jesus himself faced the decision whether to complete his mission and bring the good news to the authorities, risking his own death in the process, or to drop the whole thing and go back to being a village carpenter in Galilee, he chose to move forward and take the chance. It was not an easy choice and it cost him his life. But God his Father did not allow it all to end with that suffering and death. God brought Jesus through death to a return to life – a life that will never end, the life of the Trinity.

St. Paul and other early Christians explained that with the resurrection, God forgave all of us for the times we do not obey the divine will. Christ intercedes for us, because he is one of us and has lived a fully human life. He knows what it is to be human. (Rom 8:31b-34)

In a very real way, our God who created humans, was now not so totally envisioned in the human terms that cast him as if he were a jealous, controlling, person. Instead, he came to be known as one who understood and forgave all, because he had come to be one of us through the life of his son the Word of God, Jesus. God knows what it is to be human, so God can and will forgive all who ask for forgiveness. We are put to the test, but so is God. God never fails the test of love. God was even willing to go through with the sacrifice of his Son Jesus, so that all of us would know how much we are loved and could trust deeply in that love.

As we continue our journey through Lent this year, may we remember that God is truly with us on the journey. We are not alone. Our sacrifices, big and small, are noted. Our reaching out in love to those we meet along the way is an essential part of God’s plan for all of us. And God sees each of us as a beloved child.

Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent – Cycle B


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Posted by on Aug 6, 2023

One Like a Son of Man

One Like a Son of Man

“One like a Son of Man” is a phrase we hear from time to time in the Bible. It’s not a common term used for the men of those ancient times, though all are children of men (and women). Son of Man has a very particular meaning in Scripture. The reading from the Book of Daniel on the feast of the Transfiguration introduces this character.

Daniel described visions he had which made clear that the God of Israel was and is greater than any others who might claim that position. In this reading, Daniel speaks of the Ancient One whose clothing was bright as snow and hair white as wool. He sat on a great throne and wondrous power flowed out from him. As is the case in most royal courts, large numbers of people were present to meet his every need and carry out his orders. This Ancient One is meant to be understood as greater than the rulers of all the countries that had conquered Israel in its history. The most powerful God and ruler of all.

Then there is a bit of a shift. Another individual comes onto the scene, one who looks like a human man. Yet this man doesn’t come walking, or riding a horse, or in other ordinary means of travel. This one comes “on the clouds of heaven” and is presented before the Ancient One. And what does the Ancient One do? He gives this Son of Man “dominion, glory, and kingship” over all the world. This dominion is not going to end, nor will it be destroyed. It is to be everlasting.

The language of the Book of Daniel sounds very similar to that of the Book of Revelation. They are the same type of literature, apocalyptic. Both works speak of the end times and of the coming trials and hardships that will mark the end of the world. So why do we hear this one on the Feast of the Transfiguration?

When Jesus took Peter, James, and John up onto the mountain top to pray, they certainly did not expect what was going to happen there. Mountain tops are places traditionally known for meetings with God. But it doesn’t happen all that often! At least not obviously and dramatically. But this time was not to be the quiet, predictable, boring trip up the mountain of ordinary life.

On the mountain, they saw the appearance of their friend and teacher, Jesus, become totally different from a normal human being. “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” Remember the description of the Ancient One and the brightness of the light shining out from his clothing? This is a different reality than the everyday Jesus they knew and loved. Peter recognized immediately the meaning of the brightness of light and the presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. He offered to set up three tents, not unlike the tent in which the Ark of the Covenant rested until the Temple was constructed in Jerusalem. Tents for representatives of the Lord God, the Ancient One.

A bright cloud appeared over them all and a voice spoke from the cloud. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.”

The apostles did the most reasonable thing possible at that point in time. They immediately bowed down prostrate on the ground, fearing for their lives. Who could see God and live? They didn’t know if they would ever return to the bottom of the mountain and ordinary life. It might very well all end there.

But the next thing they knew, Jesus touched them and he looked completely normal again. Everybody else was gone. He told them to get up. As they went back down the mountain, he cautioned them not to share the vision they had seen with anyone else “until the Son of Man has been raised form the dead.”

I suspect we can all understand why they might have been just as happy not to need to tell anybody what they had seen. It would have sounded absolutely preposterous and pretentious. Such things don’t happen to ordinary people. Who are you to claim to have seen Moses and Elijah and heard the voice of God? Crazy men, that’s all…. And rising from the dead? Really? Totally crazy.

And yet… Jesus did die and he did rise from the dead. The Son of Man, the one to whom the Ancient One had given dominion, glory, and kingship, was their teacher, the very same person whom the voice from the cloud had described as his beloved Son.

The disciples shared the story of what they had seen. It became part of the teachings of the early community. The author of the second letter of St. Peter speaks of this event, as an eyewitness. This is not something made up to try to fool the superstitious or poorly educated common folk of the time. This had truly happened. So pay attention. It’s like a lamp in the darkness or the dawn breaking through the darkness of night. The Lord, the beloved Son, has been honored and praised by God the Father.

We don’t hear these readings often at Sunday liturgies, especially not in August. The Gospel readings describing the Transfiguration are more typically part of the Lenten Sunday cycles. However, when August 6 falls on a Sunday, it takes precedence over the regular celebrations of Ordinary (counted) Time. We take a day to ponder the great love of the Father who sent the Son, becoming a Son of Man, a person like each human being. He lived a normal human life and gave us a glimpse of the wonder of the sharing in God’s life that we too receive.

Let’s take a moment today to relax in the beauty of creation and the presence of the Son of Man. Crazy things can happen on mountain tops. Sometimes, we should just take a moment to savor the memory.

For a fun activity to celebrate this feast, check out this puzzle in our OFS – Other Fun Stuff section of

Readings for the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord – Cycle A

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Posted by on Mar 5, 2023

Light Shining Forth

Light Shining Forth

Abram was a shepherd, from Ur of the Chaldees (in contemporary Iraq). Jesus was a carpenter from Nazareth in the Galilee. Paul was a tent maker from Tarsus, a city in Cilicia to the north of Syria who had become a student and teacher of the Law in Jerusalem. Each heard God’s call and responded in faith.

Abram had already left his homeland with his flocks and family and was living in Haran, an area that is now part of Türkiye. He heard the Lord’s call to move south to Shechem in the land of Canaan. (Gn 12:1-4a) This was a big deal. Gods were believed to be local to a geographic area. Yet his God was telling him to go to a new area, where the people worshiped other gods. God promised that a great nation would grow from this man who had no children at the time. Abram took God at his word and moved his family south. Much to his relief, I imagine, God was present in the new land too.

Just as God had promised, Abram became the father of not one but two great peoples, the Arabs and the Jews. And through his obedience to the call, blessings have come to all the communities of the earth.

Jesus too listened to God’s voice calling him at his baptism in the Jordan River. When he returned from his forty-day retreat in the desert, he began proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand. The time had come in which the people’s relationship with God would be mended. The signs of this new kingdom would include the poor hearing good news, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, those who were crippled being healed. It was a different kind of kingdom than the one expected by his contemporaries. But many people followed him. It wasn’t every day that one could see a healer at work or hear new teachings.

Jesus had some very close friends with whom he shared the last three years of his life. He took three of them up on a mountain one day. (Mt 17:1-9) Mountains in Scripture are often places where God meets people. This was no exception. On this day, both Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets) appeared and spoke with Jesus about what was coming. His friends were astounded. Jesus’ face was shining like the sun and his clothing was blazing white. They rightly understood that God was present in that moment, his light shining through Jesus. Peter suggested that three tents could be set up, so Moses, Elijah, and Jesus would have a comfortable place to stay. Then they heard God’s voice telling them that this was his beloved son, to whom they should listen. This confirmed God’s presence there and they were afraid. They fell to the ground in worship.

The moment passed. Jesus touched them. Instructed them to get up. And as they went back down the mountain, he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had risen from the dead. Of course, they had no idea what that meant, but we’ve all been told about it now – after the Resurrection.

Paul too had an encounter with the Risen Jesus. Another brilliant light experience. He was blinded for a few days afterwards. Then he got busy and devoted the rest of his life to telling what he had learned and experienced of God’s love and presence. He traveled through much of the ancient world between Jerusalem and Greece, all the way to Rome. His letters tell us today what he learned of God’s call and support for each of us in living the new way of love and service. (2 Tim 1:8b-10) He reminds us that God is the one who called us and will support us through any and all hardships that come our way as a result of following Jesus.

When I was in grade school, some of my teachers told us that we shouldn’t expect great or outstanding things to happen to us as followers of Christ. The miracles pretty much had all happened long ago.

For the most part, we do go through our lives with few surprise interventions from the divine world. At least, we don’t notice them most days. The sun rising, the moon and stars at night, the smiles of those we love, the people with whom we interact – all seem very normal. Nothing special there, folks.

Yet I believe we sell ourselves and our lives short when we say it’s all just ordinary. Amazing things still happen. God touches people directly and indirectly even today. We don’t talk about it much, but it happens.

There is a light shining just below the surface of the world around us. We don’t see it most of the time. But there are moments when it breaks through. A child races down the sidewalk to give us a hug. A friend calls just to say hello. The clouds pick up the sun’s rays at just the right moment to paint the sky with shades of rose. A bird greets us when we walk out the door in the morning, then picks up the treat it has just found and hides it in a neighbor’s gutter, planning to come back and enjoy more of it later. (No kidding. I watched a crow do just that a couple of weeks ago!)

Remember the words of the song, “You light up my life…” Remember the times you have seen someone’s face light up with delight. We speak of lighted faces. God is shining through those faces, smiling at each of us. May we each day be open and transparent enough in our interactions with others that God’s smile shines through us as well.

Abram, Jesus, and Paul were not the only ones whom God has called to go forth and bring blessing to the world through our lives. He calls ordinary people in all ages, including each of us too. The light continues to shine forth. Not as brightly as it did through Jesus at the Transfiguration, but enough that it can be noticed as a calming, reassuring, and powerful sign of love.

Here’s to the light!

Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent – Cycle A


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