The student organization at the Catholic campus ministry center where I was previously assigned held an annual retreat led by student volunteers. During one of those retreats the students were divided into groups, and asked to perform skits about passages from the Scriptures. One of the groups was given the passage from Genesis that is our first reading this Sunday.
At the beginning of the skit the student playing the part of Abraham looked fearful and distraught over the idea of sacrificing his only son Isaac in order to prove fidelity to God. He trudged reluctantly toward the mountain in Moriah where Isaac would be sacrificed to the Lord. Isaac dutifully carried the wood for the sacrifice. Abraham seemed weighed down by the knife that would be used in the sacrifice.
The book of Genesis says that Isaac was a boy at the time of this event, but it doesn’t specify his age. The college students envisioned Isaac as a teenager. As Abraham and teenage Isaac made their way toward the place of sacrifice, Isaac acted like a typical young teen. He asked, “Dad, where are we going? What are we going to do there? Why isn’t mom coming with us? Why do I have to carry the heavy stuff? Hey, look at that! Can we stop here? Are we there yet? Why am I carrying this wood?”
As time wore on, Abraham began to look less distraught about the possibility of sacrificing his son, and more bothered by Isaac’s incessant chatter. The teen asked, “What are we doing? Why did we have to come this way? Hey, look at that over there! What is it that we are going to sacrifice?” By the time the two had arrived at the place of sacrifice Abraham was looking tenderly at the knife. Isaac had made himself such a pest that filicide no longer appeared to be such a bad idea.
At the end of the skit, as in the Scripture, God sent a ram to Abraham for the sacrifice. Isaac was spared, but Abraham was not. He had to endure the return trip home with his talkative teen.
This passage of Genesis was chosen as our first reading because of a similarity with God’s statement in the Gospel. In Genesis God spoke to Abraham, and said, “I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.” (Genesis 22:12) At the Transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel, God said, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” (Mark 9:7)
In addition to the similar vocabulary there is a similarity in the actions that God performed. In each event God revealed God’s nature to those present. In the event in Genesis God was revealed as responding mercifully to those who are faithful. In Mark God was revealed as being similarly merciful to those who are faithful to Jesus.
Believers today seem to have little trouble affirming God’s mercy. This is a popular idea even among non-Christians who consider themselves “spiritual” in some way. Much more challenging is the idea that God can, or does, communicate with the faithful. God is commonly conceived of having a benign disposition toward the world but of having no direct contact with the world. The Scriptures present a very different image of God. In the Scriptures God is constantly in contact with believers, and occasionally, even with non-believers.
If it is the case that God continues to speak to us as God spoke to people in biblical times, how are we to recognize God’s voice? We are constantly assailed by voices that expect our attention. In all of this, how do we learn to listen to God? This, after all, was the command that God gave to the disciples on the mountain, “Listen to him.” (Mark 9:7)
The first step toward learning to listen to God is to acknowledge the many obstacles that can interfere with our faithful attention to God’s voice. Society teaches us that we should always feel good about ourselves. All advertising, most news reporting, most government activity and, sadly, much of what passes for religion teaches this lesson. We are constantly encouraged to bolster our self-esteem, to avoid anything that is shaming, to find excuses for our destructive and self-destructive behavior and to blame our moral failings on the influences or actions of others.
All of this conspires to make us deaf to one of the most important ways in which God regularly speaks to us. The Scriptures are filled with examples of God speaking to sinners about the depth of their sin, and calling them to repentance. Sometimes, God afflicts our conscience in order that we might recognize the presence of sin in our lives. At other times, God speaks encouragement to us, attracting us away from sin and toward obedience to God’s will.
Accepting both the good and the bad in our lives is a counter-cultural choice, but it is necessary if we are to listen to God. Accepting responsibility for our sins is rarely a pleasant experience. For this reason, many people chose to avoid it. Our conscience’s discomfort with our sins is, however, one of the primary ways in which God speaks to us. It’s worth a little discomfort in order to make the effort to listen.
The sort of discomfort that can result from accepting personal responsibility for our moral failings can only have positive effects in our lives. We live in a culture that puts a negative value on all discomfort and suffering. It is necessary, therefore, to remind ourselves regularly of the value that the Christian Faith puts on suffering. Jesus willingly chose to suffer in obedience to God’s will, and as an expression of love for human nature. We, too, must accept a share in Jesus’ suffering by joyfully carrying our personal crosses. In the lives of believers, suffering can lead to an experience of God’s Grace.
The minor suffering that sin brings to our conscience is a light burden, and one that turns our minds and hearts toward God. At no time should we think we have to enjoy suffering or discomfort, but we should always realize that our suffering can be redeemed by trusting in God. This is the real value of our Lenten penance, and the reason that we choose to do penance. Penance and suffering show us the limitations of our own strength and virtue. In perceiving our own limitations, and embracing them, we can begin to see the limitless nature of God’s mercy.
When our lives are headed away from God, as in the college students’ skit when Abraham began to tire of Isaac’s company, God addresses our conscience to help us see the error of our ways. When we are headed toward God, God gives us help, just as God gave Abraham a ram for the sacrifice. Learning to listen to God’s voice requires that we assess the direction our lives are taking at the moment: have we turned away from God or are we trying to follow God’s will? Either way, God provides the guidance we need; we need to listen. If we are sincere in our observance of Lent we will grow more able to tune out the voices that encourage us to self-indulgence, and to attend more faithfully to God’s voice.