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Fathers, Sons, and Sacrifices: On the Second Sunday of Lent

On the Readings for February 28, 2021, the Second Sunday of Lent

"Sacrifice of Isaac" (1602) by Caravaggio (

• Gen 22:1-2, 9A, 10-13, 15-18
• Psa 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19
• Rom 8:31b-34
• Mk 9:2-10

“God put Abraham to the test.”

Why? That is the natural question to ask when we hear the first line of today’s readings. What, exactly, was God trying to show Abraham? And why did it require such extreme, seemingly cruel, measures?

Notice when God told Abraham to take Isaac to be offered as a holocaust, or sacrifice, he described the patriarch’s son as the one “you love”. We are mindful that Isaac represented, in a most concrete and living form, the faithful promise of God to provide Abraham with an heir (Gen 17). When the ninety-nine-year-old Abraham was told he and Sarai would have a son, he laughed aloud. But God said the miraculously conceived son would be blessed, for “he shall give rise to nations, and rulers of people shall issue from him” (Gen 17:16).

So why would God then tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, who personified the covenantal blessings of offspring, land, influence, and, eventually, a nation?

The third-century theologian Origen wrote at length about this remarkable test. He suggested God described Isaac as beloved so that “by awaking memories of love the paternal right hand might be slowed in slaying his son and the total warfare of the flesh might fight against the faith of the soul.”

In other words, God not only tested Abraham, he intentionally intensified the test by accentuating the great love of the father for his son. This reminder, Origen further noted, “also produces hopelessness in the promises that were made…”

Rather than making sense of the test, this appears to make it even more irrational, even cold-blooded. Within Judaism, this story is known as the “Akedah”, or “binding”, the greatest (and, according to Jewish tradition, the tenth) test faced by Abraham. But, of course, if Abraham had no love for his son, the test would not have been so harrowing. After all, the sacrificing of children was hardly unusual within the ancient near Eastern world; in fact, it was a normal part of some pagan religions.

The horror of the approaching sacrifice was not so much in the command to kill one’s son, argued Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “rather, the horror lies in the fact that this son was miraculously given by God and destined to imitate and accomplish the divine promises.” It’s as if God turned his back on his promises, plunging Abraham into a darkness no mortal could hope to withstand alone.

And that, paradoxically, begins to shed a little light upon what is, without a doubt, one of the most perplexing narratives in Scripture. By stepping into the darkness of God’s will, Abraham cast himself into the light of God’s perfect mercy and love. The test was not meant to prove God can do whatever he desires, but that God desires to do whatever he can for man, who is the pinnacle of his creation.

Yet God’s grace must be met by man’s faith; that is, God’s “Yes” to man must be accepted by man’s “yes” to God. “I know now,” said God’s messenger to Abraham, “how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.” That devotion—or, better, “fear of God”—refers specifically to a free and active obedience to God’s will. It is the emphatic “yes!” uttered and lived in faith.

With that in mind, we can better appreciate St. Paul’s explanation to the Christians in Rome that God “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all…” That gift is even more mysterious and confounding than what was asked of Abraham. And Jesus, who is called “my beloved Son” by the Father at the Transfiguration, was not a bewildered young man, but the Incarnate Word who in free and active obedience accepted and carried out the will of his Father.

If the Father freely gave his Son for us, and the Son freely gave his life for us, what will we freely give to God?

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the March 4, 2012 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Thank you , esp. for the precious words – ‘ God desires to do whatever He can for man who is the pinnacle of creation ‘. His mercy to Abraham ,in desiring to reveal to us too that being made in His image , He has put enough in us too to do His Holy Will – having given to Abraham an occasion in the above trial , to free him from the shame of not having protected Sarah from the Pharaoh and thus to restore that lost dignity . Same thus to have helped prepare hearts for the sacrifices that would be needed to undo the related effects down through the centuries , including the ritual of circumcision . The stage for the whole saga having been set in The Garden – Abel possibly having recognized with a grateful heart , the love and symbolism , in the Lamb that was slain to cloth the First Parents and tried to reciprocate that love with a similar sacrifice in taking in the pain and effort that was needed . Cain , OTOH , possibly having taken in the spirit of fear , envy and bitterness for having been driven out of The Garden and having to till the soil brought the ‘fruits’ , ? with a heart laid with such .The sight of the lamb that Abel offered could have instead reminded him that what he and the family truly deserved was that of the lamb , if the enemy had his way . Adam and Eve thus taste the sorrow of loosing a son ..Abraham too , that of Ishmael ..he very likely kept that sorrow deep within , not being able to share same with Sarah , instead likely calling on The Lord to often entrust their care to Him … the strength from same thus likely having prepared him for the occasion of having recourse only to
    The Lord , in planning and preparing and walking to Mount Moriah in silence ..
    a silence taking on its fuller depth , in that of St.Joseph – who ‘knew ‘ Mary , on the occasion of exercising his Fatherly role of naming The Lord as The Yeshua , The Savior … The Lord who desires for each of us too , to ‘know ‘ Him , in the Love from The Wounds , as the Holy Father too reminds us with his Fatherly heart .

  2. Stepping into the darkness of God’s will, Abraham cast himself into the light of God’s perfect mercy and love (Olson?/Balthasar?). The test was not meant to prove God can do whatever he desires, but that God desires to do whatever he can for man (presumably Olson). Whoever owns the first sentence owns a genius insight. The second “meant to prove” sentence enters a paradoxical issue I found in Aquinas that God can indeed do whatever he wills even that which is not perceived as consistent to us with Justice. Aquinas speaks on this as God as analogously the landlord of the house who may decide as he wills. We see indication in the Exodus story when God is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart, elsewhere where he is noted as softening the attitude of kings toward a defeated captured Israel. What it appears to say is that since the Fall Man is unworthy of saving grace inclusive of grace that motivates kindness. God who confers any motivation toward good can withhold to the point of allowing evil. Christ the beloved Son is in fact offered as a bloody sacrifice to appease the Father. Although pagans immolated their children it was motivated by Satan for material good, whereas God offers the sacrifice of his beloved, only Son for the spiritual good of our salvation. Only the perfect sacrifice, the perfect act of love of the obedient Son, to offer his life as a sacrifice could satisfy Justice. Abraham in an act of faith as alluded above offers his son with a sense that somehow it will achieve some unknown good. It seems to indicate Abraham’s unshakable faith in God’s goodness, the God who freely gives life and is free to take it. Promise of eternal life given to us, as shared solely by God, who alone gives life in the bargain. Which is why the Apostle Paul says, Who can convict us? God, who offers his own Son to be crucified? Or rather, to rise from the dead?

    • Lest I give the impression that I am above experiencing conflict with this, among the most troublesome scripture passages the reason why I tackled the question is because of that perplexion. Perhaps a way of better comprehension is to ask oneself, what is the more outrageous. Is it less outrageous for God to offer his perfect, infinitely good Son as a bloody sacrifice, than for sinful Abraham to offer his imperfect son? Christ’s anguished cry from the Cross, My God my God why have you forsaken me? seems to address this anomaly. The reason why I’m trembling, and adore when I offer the precious blood to the Father in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

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