Sunday, March 4, 2012

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen 22:1-18; Rom 8:31-34; Mk 9:2-10

One of the things I like to do, when preparing homilies, is to see what the compilers of the Lectionary have chosen to omit from the various readings (e.g. today’s). I’m interested in what they cut out and I try to guess why they did it. Most of the times their exclusions are pretty understandable; they simply drop material that gets in the way of the main narrative line. But sometimes they miss, and today they missed.

The passage from the book of Genesis about Abraham going to offer his son, Isaac, is one of the most difficult and famous passages in Jewish and Christian history. The passage in Jewish tradition is simply called the "Akedah," the binding (of Isaac). It’s also a passage which challenges modern scripture scholars because there is evidence of multiple writers who worked on the text, as we now possess it. It also seems likely that some of those writers did not accurately understand the intent of the writers who went before them. Now, one unit of the story is fairly clear—but only if you hear it read in Hebrew. For in Hebrew it would be very clear that there occurs a significant change in the name of the divine being at work with Abraham. When the story begins, "God put Abraham to the test." The Hebrew word used in this instance for God is Elohim. But Elohim is a generic name for any of the deities of the Middle East, and in Biblical literature Elohim often refers to the Canaanite gods. Abraham lived among the Canaanites at that time, and the Canaanite gods wanted child sacrifice. But when Abraham is about to strike and kill Isaac, he is prevented by a messenger of the Lord. Here comes the name change for god; it is not Elohim, the gods of the Canaanites, but Jahweh (the particular God of Israel, the Lord) who commands Abraham not to kill his son but a sheep instead. There is a great moral step forward that has occurred here. Alas, the text which validated this has been cut out of our section by the compilers: "Abraham named that place: Adonai-yeher, from which comes the present saying, ‘On the mountain of the Lord there is vision.’" (v. 14) In other words, deeper insight comes from the God of Israel, the Lord, than from the Canaanite gods. At one time that’s probably where the present story ended. At that time it was ultimately a story about spiritual wisdom and the greater wisdom that comes from Israel’s own special deity, the Lord.

The whole make-up of the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac contains multiple issues and questions: about the nature of God, what God asks of us, the nature of faith, etc.—but one issue often missed is this search for spiritual wisdom. Spiritual Wisdom was also one of the reasons for having the Benedictine sisters form themselves into Federation of Pontifical governance. That’s what you celebrate today: 75 years of the Federation of St. Gertrude.

There were lots of legitimate reasons for having communities of Benedictine sisters gather into federations in the United States. The Vatican was urging more centralization in religious communities; there was a genuine effort to escape the autocratic rule of some bishops; various communities wanted to legitimately retain regular ties between themselves. But the possibility of a greater depth into spiritual wisdom through the sharing of resources and experience was just as genuine and important. Perhaps it had to wait for the more open attitude of the post-Vatican II era to be more fully realized. Thankfully we have seen that happen richly in the past forty years. Today we celebrate and pray that it continue for many more years and much more spiritual wisdom.

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