Second Sunday of Lent

By the Diocese of Wollongong, 25 February 2024
'Sacrifice of Isaac' (1635) by Harmenszoon van Rijn Rembrandt (1606–1669). Image: Wikimedia Commons


Second Sunday of Lent

Readings: Genesis 22:1–2, 9–13, 15–18; Psalm 115–10, 15–19; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2–10

25 February 2024




The musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda begins with a Tim Minchin song: “My mummy says I’m a miracle. My daddy says, I’m his special little guy. I am a princess, I am a prince. Mum says I’m an angel sent down from the sky.” The song lyrics form an ironic contrast with the story of Matilda, an unwanted child whose remarkable intelligence is not just ignored, but sneered upon by her parents.

Applied to the two sons who sit at the centre of today’s readings, these lyrics become less the overstated endearments of doting parents, and perhaps almost accurate. Isaac, the son in the first reading, was miraculously born to his mother when she was over 90 and his parents had given up all hope of a natural heir. Jesus, the Beloved Son of the second reading and the Gospel, is literally the Son of God, miraculously born of a virgin.

Unlike Matilda, whose parents eventually abandon her, both Jesus and Isaac were obviously deeply cherished by their parents. And yet, Isaac was almost, and Jesus was actually, given up as a sacrifice by their respective fathers. What on earth is going on?

If we can step aside from the horrifying details of what almost happened, the story of Abraham and Isaac is actually a pretty amazing story of how much Abraham loved and trusted God—that he would be willing to sacrifice his long-awaited son at God’s request. God’s 11th-hour reprieve, in fact, confirmed that God was who Abraham knew him to be—compassionate, trustworthy, and provident.

In Jesus’ case, there was no last-minute reprieve. He actually died. And unlike Isaac, who appeared not to know what was going on, Jesus went willingly to the cross. However, the motivating force in both stories was the same: love. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because he loved God. God gave up his Beloved Son (and Jesus gave up his life) because he loves us.

Which points us to a third beloved child— you and me! If we had started the second reading just a couple of verses before, we’d have heard that God’s whole purpose in giving up his Beloved Son was so that he might be the eldest of many brother and sisters—us!

Whether we were cherished like Isaac or discarded like Matilda, I suspect that most of us struggle, sometimes because of stories like the one about Abraham and Isaac today, to know God as our loving Father and ourselves as beloved sons and daughters.

The disciples’ experience of the Transfiguration was a crucial moment that helped them to understand that the man, Jesus, wasn’t just another prophet, but God himself come among us.

As both God and man, he reveals to us both what God is really like, and who we really are. If we “listen to him”, as today’s Gospel asks us to do, we will notice that every word that he speaks, every miracle, every action, shows us one, or both, of these things. In him, we experience both the compassion of the Father and what it looks like to live out of our true identity as beloved sons and daughters.

Perhaps if you’re up for adding another Lenten goal, it might be worth taking up the Gospels and reading them just for yourself, looking at the miracles and actions of Jesus, listening to his words, and asking the Holy Spirit to help us to see and hear in them both the compassion of the Father and what it looks like to live out of our true identity as beloved sons and daughters.



Sacrifice of Isaac – Harmenszoon van Rijn Rembrandt (1606–1669)

“Sacrifice of Isaac” (1635), Oil on canvas, 193cm x 132cm. The New Hermitage Museum, Room 254, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Public Domain.

Before today’s reading from the book of Genesis, God once more enters the history of his people offering a Covenant. “Do not be afraid, Abram! I am your shield…. I brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this country as your possession” (Gn 15:1,7). “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can. Just so will your descendants be” (Gn 15:5). Abram (his original name), formerly a pagan, put his faith in a yet unknown God. With a play-on-words, God “cuts” a Covenant with him. Abram falls into a deep sleep—showing that God is the principal actor— and has a vision of God moving between the half-cut carcasses of animals Abram has slaughtered. It was an ancient form of contract, meaning that if either party were to break the contract, may they be like those slaughtered animals. Later, God says: “Live in my presence” (Gn 17:1).

We know, of course, that no matter how often we break the Covenant, God will always be faithful. It is the point of today’s reading from Genesis. It begins: “God put Abraham (his new name) to the test” (Gn 22:1). True faith is always tested. But what a test! How can God’s promise to Abraham be reconciled with what he is now asking? Now, it’s good to remember that God certainly did not want the sacrifice of Isaac or of any other child— this was considered an abomination in Israel. It was what pagans did to “appease” their angry gods. God did not desire the death of his own Son either. Christ’s death was a result of mankind’s sinfulness. But even this could not thwart God’s plan to draw us to himself.

It is good to read the whole of Chapter 2 of Genesis. The lectionary reading is a bit truncated. The dialogue between Abraham and Isaac as they mount the hill of Moriah is heart wrenching—“My father,” “My son,” they address each other. The early Christians immediately saw Isaac carrying the wood for his own sacrifice as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ carrying of his cross to the hill of Calvary. It is interesting to note that while the two events are separated in time by 2,000 years, the two locations are only a matter of a few yards from each other. The Jerusalem Temple has been replaced by Islam’s Dome of the Rock, thought by many to be the actual rock of Abraham’s sacrifice.

If Abraham and God the Father, and Isaac and Jesus, are to be compared, there is an enormous contrast. Abraham was given back his son—but there would be a sacrifice, one which God himself would provide. “Where is the lamb for the offering?” Isaac asks his father. “My son, God himself will provide the lamb” (Gn 22:7-8). Abraham’s knife would be replaced by the centurion’s lance.

We can only imagine the scene that followed— an Old Testament Pietà of an elderly man weeping, hugging his beloved son in gratitude and overwhelming love. Compare this with Mary, Abraham’s daughter. Her faith, too, was severely tested, but more so. She is hugging the limp body of her only Son, the Lamb who was Isaac’s substitute. Because Mary’s faith did not waver between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we dedicate each Saturday to her in the liturgy. On the lips of both Abraham and Mary the Church places the words of today’s responsorial psalm: “I trusted, even when I said: ‘I am sorely afflicted’” (Ps 115:10).

The whole point of today’s liturgy is that if Abraham is outstanding in his faithfulness to God (we call him “our father in faith” in the Eucharistic Prayer), how much more extraordinary is God in his faithfulness to us? This is St Paul’s argument. Many think of God as somehow against us, ready to punish when we don’t get things right. We imagine we’re out there on the stage of life doing our song and dance routine, trying to win God’s approval. Perhaps he will applaud, perhaps he will give us the gong! God then becomes an alien figure—the ultimate drama critic.

This is clearly not the view of St Paul! It’s precisely his concern in the second reading to say that God is not like that. God is on our side, so on our side, so faithful to us, that he was prepared to give up his own Son so that we might live. And this while we had abandoned him through sin! If ever we thought of God as judge, he certainly isn’t a “hanging judge”. Rather, his mind is made up for acquittal, and Paul adds, if that is the case, who would be brash enough to come before such as judge and try to prosecute us?

If heaven is pictured as a court, and we know we must face God in death, then we have the assurance we have two barristers. “[Christ] not only died for us”—in our place, for he took our sins upon himself —“at God’s right hand he stands and pleads for us” (Rm 8:34). “Let us, then, have no fear in approaching the throne of grace to receive mercy,” writes the author of the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 4:16). And what is Christ’s plea for us? “Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing,” (Lk 23:24), and he shows his Father the signs of his victory—his sacred wounds.

The second barrister? “I shall ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete (or Advocate) … he is with you, he is in you” (Jn 14:16–17). St Paul is not saying that we may live careless and indifferent lives because God will let us off in the end. He is saying that he so loves us, that if we can accept that God is on our side, then our relationship with him will not be filled with fears and scruples, but with confidence and love.

No doubt the community in which St Mark lived experienced the same fears, the same problems we do today. If Christ Our Lord has all this power, why doesn’t he use it to heal our diseases, remove our poverty, and bring us peace? St Mark’s response was not a series of easy answers, but a hard look at our Lord’s rejection and suffering. In preaching the Good News of God’s love, Jesus necessarily met with opposition from the evil forces which still try to control the earth. We don’t know why God allows evil, but as it was part of our Lord’s experience, so it is of ours.

Like the other evangelists, Mark includes in his Gospel the account of the Transfiguration. Not only was it an assurance for the three apostles, it was an assurance also for Jesus that evil will not win out; it was an assurance that we are all “beloved” of the Father, and that our salvation lies in listening to the Son (Mk 9:7). “Live in my presence,” God had told Abraham” (Gn 17:1).

The Preface of the Mass of the feast of the Transfiguration (6 August) spells out its meaning for us. “For he revealed his glory in the presence of chosen witnesses … that he might show how in the Body of the whole Church is to be fulfilled what so wonderfully shone first in its Head.” Sin and suffering and death are not the final page of the story.

Rembrandt’s painting, The Sacrifice of Isaac (1635), hangs in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Hopefully, Westerners will one day soon be able to see it again. Rembrandt painted it when he was 29 years old—the same year that his first son was born and then died in infancy, a fact that lends a special poignancy to the subject of the painting.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn was born in 1606 in Leiden in the Netherlands. At the beginning of his artistic journey, Rembrandt primarily focused on painting portraits, including self-portraits. However, the majority of his work revolves around biblical themes, with some pieces also exploring historical, mythological, and allegorical subjects. His talent was quickly recognised by art enthusiasts in the Netherlands, and he gained significant acclaim. Rembrandt’s unique storytelling ability allowed him to skilfully capture people in different emotional states and dramatic roles, establishing him as one of the greatest storytellers in the history of art.

This is so obvious in his depiction of the drama on Mount Moriah. In Abraham’s face we see both the anguish of a father about to murder his son, and the surprise and confusion of a human confronting the divine. Abraham has shielded Isaac’s face completely with his left hand. This action reveals that Abraham could not bear the thought of his beloved son actually witnessing his own father raising and lowering the knife that would harm him. Abraham’s love for his son was so deep that he couldn’t proceed with the act while looking at his son’s face.

The angel is looking directly at Isaac’s covered face as he cries out: “Do not raise your hand against the boy” (Gn 22:12). He grabs Abraham’s right hand, causing the knife to fall. Abraham, who intentionally avoided looking at Isaac’s face, now directs his gaze towards the angel. The angel, who appears to be around the same age as Isaac, captures Abraham’s attention. As one critic remarked, “[Abraham has] the look of a madman unexpectedly paroled from hell.” When observed closely, one can notice tears of compassion streaming down Abraham’s face. According to Kierkegaard’s interpretation of this event, Abraham’s obedience required a “leap of faith”. This means that Abraham had to trust and have faith in God’s plan, even though it seemed difficult or incomprehensible.


Katherine Stone MGL is a Missionaries of God’s Love (MGL) sister living in Varroville, NSW. Originally hailing from Tasmania, she joined the MGL Sisters in 2005. Since then, she has lived in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, studied theology and spiritual direction, and has done a term as formator. These days, her main ministries are spiritual direction, talks and teaching, and retreat giving. She is also the MGL sisters’ vocations director. Her passion is Jesus—as may be apparent from her ministry, she loves talking about him and to him, and hearing others share their own experiences of him.

Monsignor Graham Schmitzer is the retired parish priest of Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Mgr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.


With thanks to the Diocese of Wollongong, who have supplied this reflection from their publication, Pietà – Lenten Program 2024Reproduced with permission.


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