Luke seems to have combined two separate Jewish rituals in Sunday’s Gospel about the offering of the firstborn to Yahweh and the mother’s purification after childbirth (Lk 2: 22-40). But the action we usually reflect on is the one that pertains to Jesus, not Mary. To understand its significance, we must explore one of Scripture’s strangest narratives: Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22, a passage so significant for early Christians that they instinctively included it among the seven Hebrew Scripture readings proclaimed during the Easter Vigil, Christianity’s most important celebration. Jesus’ first followers quickly discovered a parallel between Isaac’s carrying the wood for his sacrifice and Jesus carrying His cross; between Isaac’s miraculous deliverance and Jesus’ resurrection. But what bothers modern people is Yahweh’s command to Abraham: “Take your son, Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and...offer him up as a holocaust!” How can a loving God insist that a parent kill a child?

Anti-pagan

The only way to appreciate this narrative is to understand that the prophets who composed it in the eighth century before Christ were leading the struggle against child sacrifice. Offering one’s first-born male was an acceptable practice among the pagan, fertility-cult devotees with whom the Israelites lived and mingled. We know from Scripture that many followers of Yahweh imitated their example in order to acquire the fertility such sacrifices guaranteed. Some even believed Yahweh wanted them to do so. That’s why the two most important parts of the narrative are Abraham’s determination to do whatever Yahweh commands, and his willingness to shift gears and use a ram in place of Isaac once he finds out that Yahweh really doesn’t want human sacrifices. The substitution of an animal for a child became the normal way Jews demonstrated both thankfulness for their child’s birth and trust that this child is part of God’s pledge of fertility for the Chosen People. This switch from one kind of sacrifice to another also played a significant role in early Christianity. Once Jews started to prohibit Jesus’ followers from participating in the Jerusalem temple sacrifices, Christians started to look at sacrifice from a different angle.

Sacrifice

Educated and trained as Jews, Jesus’ first disciples continued to offer the same temple sacrifices all Jews offered. They, like Malachi, regarded such rituals to be essential to their practice of faith (Mal 3: 1-4). They were certain that they always would be offered. Yahweh guaranteed this by constantly purifying the priests, so they would offer the sacrifices correctly. Stopped from performing those rituals, Christians began to look at sacrifice to other ways. First, as we hear in the second reading (Heb 2: 14-18), they started to regard Jesus’ death and resurrection as a sacrifice, making Him the “merciful and faithful high priest (who)...expiates the sins of the people.” Second, they also started to interpret their own imitation of Jesus’ death and resurrection as a sacrifice; something we hear Simeon allude to in the Gospel when he tells Mary, “This child is destined to be the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted - and you yourself a sword shall pierce.” Mary, Luke’s model Christian, will be pierced by her faith in her son, just as surely as Isaac was about to be pierced by Abraham’s knife. Changes in the way we look at sacrifice run all through our readings. But they’re only significant to those who are open enough to experience changes in how Jesus expects them to offer themselves to Him and to others.

(01-30-03)