The story of Abraham is key for the entire religious cosmology of the West. In the three monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Abraham emerges as a very important, almost archetypal figure. As portrayed in the Book of Genesis, he marks a new beginning in the relationship of God to humankind.
There are many references to him in the New Testament as well: in the Gospels and the Letters of St. Paul, as well as the Letter to the Hebrews. While we are not physical, biological descendants of Abraham, we consider ourselves spiritual heirs of Abraham as “our father in faith”, a line used in the First Eucharistic Prayer (Roman Canon).
At first, his name is given as Abram (God often changes a favored one’s name to show his sovereignty). He is a very old man who has no descendants. He and his elderly wife Sarai (soon to be Sarah) are simply told by God to pack all their belongings and move to the area (no specifics!) that God wants him to live. So Abram puts his trust in God and pulls up all his roots in the land he grew up in and where he spoke the language and moves into the unknown.
Then God promises him a land (which Abram never actually inhabits) and a people that will descend from him “as numerous as the stars or the sand on the shore of the sea”. Abram is in his 80’s and childless! So, once again, he puts his trust in God, though he sees nothing that would be evidence of things changing in the future.
Finally, he has a son by his elderly wife Sarai! He must have raised little Isaac with such love and devotion, even perhaps spoiling him a little! How proud he must have been about him!
Then came the bad news: The God who gave Isaac to Abraham and Sarah (their new names) wants Abraham to sacrifice him on the altar and to burn his little body as an offering to Him. One has to remember that, at that time, human sacrifice, especially of one’s own children, was common in many of the ancient religions of the Middle East. So Abraham would not have been shocked by the request. But that does not mean that he liked it!
But, again, he put his trust in God, even in this most terrible time, and took the fire and the knife along with a bundle of wood placed on the back of his son, and went up to the holy mountain to obey God.
In halting this horrendous act, God instilled in Judaism an aversion to human sacrifice, which eventually spread to all of civilized humanity.
The point that I want to make and even underline is that the greatness of Abraham was his faith in God that was tested so much. It seemed that everything was against this faith and, for most people, a reaction to this problem would be laughter as it happened with Sarah who laughed when the Angelic visitors at Mamre foretold that Sarah at her old age would soon be a mother.
It is not easy to believe. It is not easy to have trust in God.
Abraham lived at a time of general belief in the Divine, expressed in diverse ways. He lived in a religious cosmos where everyone assumed that the divine realities were behind everything.
We have the opposite situation. We live in a godless environment where science and materialism have created a vacuum of disbelief. To believe today is not the default setting of our culture. Quite the opposite: the new “normal” is that we live in a godless universe where we are just accidents of nature and are all condemned to death, a death which means total annihilation. There is no judgment or accountability. Whether you are a Hitler or a Mother Theresa, you will end up just ashes and a memory.
How liberating is the Gospel in this environment! And how difficult to believe! But, if we have faith and trust in God, all is transformed. Every one of our actions are important and noted by God. All our thoughts, words, and actions are fraught with meaning: they sum up a life and point to an eternity of either joy or sorrow of our own making. Everything about us has eternal consequences. We are so important that God takes a personal interest in us and, like a loving Father, wants the best for us.
I want to stand with Abraham. My life matters and is not just a drop in a mindless ocean. This is what I choose to believe. This is the Truth of my life.
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