Gospel for Today


click for readings

Lent is a season of sacrifice.  We hear this so many times throughout the season, it is easy for the word to roll over us, without thought.  My wife likes to tell the story from when our oldest was still small enough to sit in the child seat on the grocery cart.  She was doing some grocery shopping, our daughter along for the ride in the buggy.  As they passed the bakery, our daughter asked if we were buying doughnuts.  My wife said, "No, dear, it's Lent, remember?  We are making a sacrifice by not eating sweets."  To which my small daughter replied, "But I can't wanna make a sacrifice!"
That's a perfectly natural reaction for a small child.  We are all born so selfish, unable to deny ourselves anything, not understanding the concepts of self-denial or generosity.  We have to be taught these things.  (I was once told by someone that if you don't believe in Original Sin, all you need to do is put one cookie on the floor between two babies and watch the selfishness on display).  
As we mature, it is hoped that we grow in this regard, and learn to deny our self for the good of others.  Still, it is difficult.  How many of us still feel like my daughter did back then, whining, "I can't wanna make a sacrifice," when Lent rolls around.  And we deny ourselves such petty things; doughnuts or chocolate, coffee or sodas.  I will occasionally meet someone who has given up something for Lent like cursing.  I tell them it's wonderful that they aren't cursing, but that's not really a sacrifice.  In order to be a true and worthy sacrifice, the thing sacrificed needs to be good (a foul mouth is not good!).  

The things we typically give up during Lent are small goods — treats and sweets, and little pleasures we enjoy.  But what if God were to require us to give up a much, much greater good than these?  Today's first reading, from Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18, tells the story of Abraham and his son Isaac.  As a father myself, this story is always hard to read.  God tells Abraham, "Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and… offer him up as a holocaust."  Abraham did as God commanded.  It must have broken his heart, but he took Isaac to the place God instructed, built an altar there, gathered the wood, and had knife in hand, ready to make the killing blow, when an angel stopped him.

"Do not lay your hand on the boy," the angel said.  "I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son."  God was testing Abraham.  God did not actually require the sacrifice of Isaac, but He wanted to know whether Abraham was willing to make that ultimate sacrifice.  Abraham was, and so God promised him, "I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore… in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing."  (Extending the covenant we saw made with Noah and his family last week to an entire nation now).  
This reading always humbles me. How many of us would be willing to sacrifice one of our own children — even our only child — if God were to ask that of us?  Why would God ever demand such a thing, we are forced to wonder?  How horrible that is, how cruel…  
Yet, that is precisely what God did out of love for us.  Today's second reading from Romans 8:31b-34 tells us, "He did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all."  We sacrifice our small goods during Lent for the same reason that Abraham was called on to sacrifice his only son – to remind us of the ultimate good God Himself sacrificed on our behalf, his only Son, Jesus Christ.  For if a thing must be good in order to be a worthy sacrifice, what greater sacrifice could there be than the ultimate good, God Himself?
Any sacrifice we could make as human beings, even one as great as a father offering up his son, in the end is imperfect.  It could not make up for the countless sins committed by all mankind.  God is the ultimate and perfect good, therefore only God could serve as the ultimate and perfect sacrifice.  But God is immortal.  Only man can die.  And this is the great mystery of Christianity, the great gift of our faith, that God should choose to become man so that He might suffer death as the perfect and eternal sacrifice offered for our salvation.
In this sacrifice God the Son, Jesus Christ, conquers death once and for all, opening for us the way to eternal life.  Good Friday (the day of Christ's crucifixion) is called "good" because it is followed by Easter (the day of the Resurrection).    This is foreshadowed in the Gospel reading today, from Mark 9:2-10, when the disciples saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain, with Moses and Elijah.  Christ told them not to tell anyone what they had seen, until the Son of Man "had risen from the dead."  Mark tells us that they kept the secret, as asked, though "questioning what rising from the dead meant."  They did not know the end of the story at that time.  We do now.  We know the sacrifice that God made on our behalf, and we know what it gained for us.
It is good to remind ourselves of this each time we are tempted to whine or complain about the little sacrifices we are called to make.  Do we have the faith of Abraham?  Do we have the love of Christ?  Let's allow ourselves this Lent to grow closer to these holy examples, and in so doing grow closer to God.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723